by Michael Kanell

Case Files: applied Wireless – Big Network Off Campus

Mar 15, 200311 mins
MobileSmall and Medium Business

An ambitious cloud has settled over Athens, Ga. The invisible presence is actually a hopeful experiment, a wireless local area network that was formally flicked into being in December around 24 blocks of downtown in this small city. It is now heavy with connections, communications and?mostly?possibilities.

Known as the Wireless Athens Group Zone?WAGZone for short?the cloud was the brainchild of technologists at the University of Georgia’s New Media Institute. From its conception, the project took about 18 months to build. “Pretty much all New Media programs start off with five words: Wouldn’t it be cool if,” says Scott Shamp, the institute’s director and an associate professor at the university’s communications school. “We wanted students to think about using mobile technology to forge a new relationship with information.”

With nine Wi-Fi transmission boxes spread around downtown, the WAGZone welcomes laptops and PDAs fitted with wireless networking cards. Users get access to WAGZone content, and if they are University of Georgia (UGA) students or faculty, they also have access to the Internet. If the WAGZone takes flight, it will get its lift from the school’s roughly 31,000 students. And at the outset, the applications most likely to draw immediate use are aimed right at students?at least the ones who walk downtown with a wireless PDA. (Shamp estimates that 35 percent of students own a laptop, but has no firm estimates on how many are wireless or how many students have PDAs.)

The first application that New Media students talk about is called Nimbus. It lets a user set up a list of likewise-equipped friends, then anytime a user is downtown, she can find out which of her “buddies” are also in the area?and where they are hanging out. Each user has to enter her location, so it is not automatic. (A global positioning option may be offered, should the WAGZone take off.) But it plays to student attitudes.

“If everybody’s going to a concert, say, then the database will show that, and you’ll know that’s the hottest show,” says Ryan Manchee, a telecommunications major at UGA. “Or you see that some people are hanging out at Wuxtry’s” (which sells used records and CDs), “or that your friend Heidi is studying at Espresso Royale. The typical college students, they come downtown, and if they’ve got 20 friends, why call them all to know where they are?”

Of course, it’s hard to envision student shmoozing as the core of a profitable business plan. So the WAGZone is envisioned also as a tool for connecting merchants and visitors?tourists, townies and students too. Over at Wuxtry Records on East Clayton Street, co-owner Dan Wall likes the idea that the network tells people where their friends are, where the cool places are, and what new releases are in the stores or?in his case?what dusty but desirable rarities of days gone by exist.

Over Wall’s shoulder as he speaks is a poster for the movie Yellow Submarine. Over the stacks behind him are a series of album covers from the Isley Brothers’ Shout! to REM, the Beatles and blues. Wall’s inventory may be largely vinyl era, but he has been selling via a store website, and he is not put off by the technology. It’s just that the WAGZone’s commercial proposition is a trifle hard to fathom. Still, the feel is right. “To tell you the truth, it’s a little vague to me. But it seems exciting. Like there is something in the air,” he says.

The concept?paralleled in various other cities, from Portland, Ore., to New York City?is perhaps an inevitable reversal of the first wireless wave. Up to now, the revolution in wireless technology has been, in many ways, a campaign to eradicate distance, to make location irrelevant. You dial a phone or punch up the Internet from wherever you are. You have a conversation, surf the Web or send e-mail from a park bench just the same as from your office. Location doesn’t matter.

In contrast, the Athens experiment is an attempt to make location matter?to marry wireless and place. That could mean that someone sipping a latte could check on the wait time at a restaurant four blocks away. Find out which band is playing at which club right now?and what song it’s playing. Order a pizza that will be ready when she strolls across town. Check to see if the new Shania Twain album has arrived in a store. None of those require stunning new technology. What they require, however, is a tech-bridge between your presence in town and what you can do while you are there.

“The potential is for information to accompany you as a companion,” Shamp says. “This is the test bed for that.” While the technology is not a challenge, the WAGZone cloud has a database that is still, well, kind of cloudy. But there are some starter applications that may lead the way to something denser. For instance, a host of Athens entertainment information from Flagpole, the local alternative weekly, is on the WAGZone, accessible to all users.

That can be one more way to get people where they want to go, says Jane Scott, owner of the Native America Gallery in downtown. “You don’t want to bombard people, but we get lots of visitors to Athens. People are always asking us where the restaurants are, the cool places to go,” she says.

And there are other, quirkier possibilities that play to the singularity that is Athens. There is a music tour of Athens, a hip, wireless version of those museum walking tours. A video clip shows resident Jared Bailey talking about his friendship with REM back when it was just a local band. As the tour progresses, the laptop or PDA screen features Athens musician Vic Varney standing in front of the Georgia Theatre and reminiscing about how his band opened up there for the B-52s on Groundhog Day in 1979. And on its official kickoff day in December, the WAGZone unveiled a real-time, lyrics follow-along as the Fairburn Royals, a current-day local band, played.

Meanwhile, some businesses have virtual storefronts that give a WAGZone user a quick look-see, but just that so far. Not a way to make reservations for dinner, not a way to buy CDs, but still a first step. It wouldn’t be hard to connect the student-oriented Nimbus to the virtual storefronts. For instance, the places where the students hang out could automatically offer promotional offers and come-ons to the rest of their buddies who log on.

That sounds good to merchant Creighton Cutts. Cutts, owner of Frontier, a downtown store that sells “eclectic and unusual gifts for soul and shelter,” says he isn’t sure how soon that will matter to his business, but he’s open to the idea. “We are thinking about putting in a virtual coupon, so if you walked within a hundred yards of Frontier a coupon would pop up, with a time limit to use it,” he says.

net access in public spaces

What the WAGZone emphatically is not, is a no-charge wireless Internet connection. Yes, if you are part of the UGA community, the WAGZone gives you a way to the Net when you are downtown and mobile. But the image of surfing the Net from deep in the cafŽ with cappuccino in hand doesn’t necessarily hold?the WAGZone is designed to work outdoors. But Shamp is adamant: The WAGZone will not be competition to Internet service providers. “If we undercut the ISPs, then the Internet would dry up and go away,” he says.

There are already commercial arrangements for providing a wireless way to the Net. Starbucks customers, for example, can have Net access via T-Mobile. Other businesses have arrangements with other carriers. And University of Georgia students and faculty already have Net access, so the WAGZone only extends to wireless what they already have. They just have to log on in the same way they do from their rooms. Any other user can have free rein on the WAGZone but will get blocked at the entrance ramp to the Net.

Even for UGA users, the WAGZone’s Net access is not the main selling point. Partly to prevent a conflict with ISPs?and keep the Net from becoming its focus?the WAGZone was not designed to reach indoors, only to reach public spaces. Shamp emphasizes the Zone as part of the walking around experience, the tie between visitor and place.

Making that happen depends on developing WAGZone content, and building that bridge between location and technology. And, of course, content depends on users who depend on content.

To tap into the WAGZone network requires at least an investment in a handheld and a wireless card?something that could set you back more than $500. Will they get cheaper? No doubt. Will they eventually become as common as cell phones? That’s tough to predict. Athens does have the advantage of being a well-visited city (host to Georgia Bulldogs football games, for example) and home to many well-educated professionals not intimidated by technology.

Even so, it should be a long time before the WAGZone system is stressed, Shamp says. For now, the WAGZone database runs on a New Media Institute server. The cloud itself uses the 802.11b or Wi-Fi wireless protocol. Wi-Fi operates in unregulated spectrum, which in theory means anyone can set up competing systems on the same frequency. The hope is that no one will do that unless they want to be part of the WAGZone and are willing to negotiate an interface. But it is a risk.

It is a risk for users too. New Media bought a turnkey firewall from Bluesocket for about $5,000, but there’s a conscious trade-off here between cost and security. The idea is not to have a lot of confidential data that needs protecting on the WAGZone, Shamp says. “It doesn’t matter how secure you are, somebody can break into it, if they are dedicated to it. I tell people, I wouldn’t do anything on the WAGZone I wouldn’t do in the park with my mom watching.”

Hardware for the WAGZone system costs less than $35,000. Someone duplicating the system elsewhere could spend more, since virtually all the WAGZone work?the brainstorming, the software and code-writing, the lobbying of a few businesses downtown?was done by students. Even better, the maintenance of the system can be done by a New Media employee; its demands are so low-key that they can be tucked inside the worker’s 10-hour-a-week assignment, Shamp says.

WAGZone’s goals are to lure wireless companies?carriers and content providers?to a wide-open startup. To make downtown an ever-more vibrant?and cool?place. And of course, for Athens businesses to make more money and for the city to prosper. Yet the commercial aspects of the Zone are almost as nebulous as the WAGZone itself. “I won’t lie to you,” Shamp says. “They haven’t figured out how to make money on this. But the [business owners] are willing to do it because they don’t have to pay for it.”

The New Media Institute has a deal with Athens-Clarke County to have its network boxes on poles around downtown through August 2003. City government is excited about the prospect, although new Mayor Heidi Davison says she was a little bowled over at her first briefing on the technology. “I felt like an interplanetary alien dropped into a new world. I don’t understand it. But I’m fascinated by it,” she says. Even if the project doesn’t make money for anyone right away, it could add to “the buzz” in downtown, she adds.

Picking up the tab for the project was the Georgia Research Alliance, an economic development consortium of business, academia and government that invests to nurture Georgia’s technology community and?whenever possible?attract more business to the state. Not even the 15 businesses that are involved in the WAGZone have a clear sense of where this is going, only the notion that wireless will eventually take them somewhere?and it’s better to be on board as the train is pulling out than to try leaping onto a juggernaut.

Still, Cutts at Frontier doesn’t think it is going to change Athens business real soon. “Right now, I think it’s neonatal,” he says. But just the buzz is a good idea, he says. “If more people come into downtown, then more people will come into Frontier.”