Having co-founded RedButton, a Cape Town based wireless Internet company, over six years ago, the time came to move on and so I recently exited the business, which continues with success.
Looking back, I feel privileged to have gained a wealth of experience and feel proud to have built up an established business from scratch with no outside investment.
The highlights include:
Climbing Kilimanjaro with my business partners, Barry Steyn and Kilian Hagemann, soon after founding the business, in September 2006. We also subsequently climbed the snow clad Waaihoek a number of times.
Building and then launching the RedButton WiFi Hotspot Billing System in April 2007
The large-scale roll-out of the RedButton WiFi Hotspot Billing System in June 2007
Whether you are new to the field of Fixed Broadband Wireless Access Network (FBWA) or a salty old sea dog in my opinion the white paper “How to Build and Manage a Successful FBWA Business” [edit 16/06/2011 regretfully this article is no longer available online, sorry] is an excellent read. WISPs and WiFi hotspot network operators fall within the FBWA category, and even if you plan to run a single commercial WiFi hotspot, with one access point, I would recommend you read this article.
The article makes an important point in that providing a highly reliable service is a significantly greater challenge in the FBWA space than in the cellular mobile telephony service (CMTS) space. It does this by reminding the reader that reliability requirements in terms of backhaul links are significantly more stringent in FBWA networks than in CMTS networks, since with the former, backhual link downtime generally results on consumer downtime since one has a single point of failure, whilst in the latter, service degradation is the result, which is generally preferable to having no service at all.
In a nutshell, the article suggests, in my opinion, that you better know what you are doing if you are going to provide a high quality, highly reliable FBWA network. In my mind, if you are operating a commercial prepaid FBWA network, the demands are even greater and potentially commercial WiFi hotspot operations present the greatest challenge if you are serious about your service levels (and if you are not, thankfully in South Africa there is the Consumer Protection Act or the old fashioned way, consumers voting with their feet).
This posting is a simple listing of my opinion of who South Africa’s four most prominent WiFi hotspot operators are. I got asked such a question recently and thought I’d answer here.
But first a definition, when I say WiFi hotspot I mean in the traditional sense, that is predominantly serving the hospitality industry with the network controlled by hotspot management software (i.e. a basic WiFi router with open access does not qualify). Secondly, when I say operator I mean the company in question largely, but not necessarily exclusively, owns and operates the access points that comprise their network. Lastly, saying that these operators are the most prominent is a bit vague, and so as qualifying criteria I add number of access points being operated by any company as being in the hundreds.
Here is my listing of the my perception of the top four in alpabetical order:
I recently had the privilege of visiting Edinburgh, Ayr and then Culzean Castle in Ayrshire, for a stag night and wedding. Throughout a whistle stop six day trip a fair amount of the Edinburgh night life, the Scottish country side, and also wireless hotspots where sampled. In this post I share the hotspot side of this trip along with a slide show of hotspot sights.
Having built up RedButton, a Cape Town based wireless hotspot business, over the last four years, once I got to Scotland I could not help myself and found my interest in Haggis, Caledonian Ales, the Scottish Accent and people being nearly equalled by what I spotted hotspot wise en-route. But it turned out to not only be a casual interest, I was sadly affected by prevalent British Airways strikes and found myself desperately in need of a hotspot, since I needed to find a flight from Glasgow to Heathrow pronto. So I went from casual observer to desperado quite quickly, there would only be so many reasonably priced seats from Glasgow International or Glasgow Pretwick International to Heathrow and so I could not rest on my laurels and wait to the last minute to book a flight. In retrospect my desperation was a good thing in terms of experiencing being a typical wifi dependent traveller in a world city – I had been at the network operator side of things for too long.
I was surprised to find that hotspots where not everywhere to be found, as I had expected. My budget accommodation off the historic grassmarket did not have wifi, in any way, shape or form. They did have terminals where I could sit in the lobby, at 1 pound for half an hour, but I did not travel from the tip of Africa to Edinburgh to sit around in a lobby, I wanted to use my laptop in comfort, with a coffee, Haggis or Ale at hand. So I headed out to the nearest coffee shop, which oddly enough only opened at 10am, paid my rent via a cappuccino, only to find that their wifi hotspot simply did not work. I moved on to a pub later on, which also advertised free wifi, and told the barman that I first wanted to test their wifi before ordering an ale. Sadly I once again came up short, their wifi was non operational, the barman advised that I go to the hotel across from them on the grassmarket.
At this stage my battery was running low, so I headed into the new town to find a mall where I might find a plug adapter. I spotted the best free wifi advertising I had ever seen en-route, at the Burger King, and wondered whether their hotspot might work, but guessed that it would since they would probably have a professional service provider with their loud and proud advertising, rather than a DIY installation. Well Burger King was a winner, they had hundreds of seats upstairs, plugs, the works – an naturally their free wifi worked with a fast and easy process backed by a splash page that optionally asked for my demographics. I did what I needed to do flight wise, over a three pound breakfast, and could return to what I came for, experiencing the city. I naturally also checked up on who provided their wifi, and there was no surprise when I found it to be a large scale free wifi specialist network operator.
Having secured my flight, I moved onto the trekking through the castle, and other sights, but I still had some wifi-lust left in me since I was travelling solo and also I was co-ordinating the stag night via email & SMS. The one thing I resolved to do in Edinburgh was eat Haggis. So I again settled for a pub that had wifi, this time via a WEP key, not traditional splash page which is far easier to use.
All in all, I found that Edinburgh had a fair amount of wifi, but I expected more from a capital city in the first world. I would say that wifi, and free wifi, is without a doubt more pervasive than say in Cape Town, but we are not far behind, and in certain areas of Cape Town I would say we are ahead in terms of professionally operated hotspots per square kilometer, but this is just my opinion from a very short trip, so I naturally speak under correction. The go-big-or-go-home marketing material used by Burger King was without a doubt the highlight of my trip wifi wise.