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Tuesday, 6 August, 2002, 11:41 GMT 12:41 UK
History lessons for wireless networks
Rabbit phone point, Ivan Noble
A battered piece of technology history at New Barnet
Barnet in North London has much to recommend it but few would associate it with the history of UK technology.

Yet Platform 1 of New Barnet station is home to a relic of an almost forgotten technology whose demise may hold lessons for anyone cashing in on the current craze for all things wireless.

On the platform is a sign showing that it was once possible to use the Rabbit phone service on the station.

Subscribers to the service, backed by Hutchison Whampoa, could make mobile calls when they were within 100 metres of a Rabbit transmitter.

Rabbit redux?

Rabbit was one of four location-specific phone services given licences in Britain in 1989. The others were Phonepoint, Mercury Callpoint and Zonephone.

Sadly, none have survived to the present day. Mobile phone services that let people roam were taking off at the same time and proved more popular.

All that remains of Rabbit are a few lonely signs in places such as New Barnet and Brighton stations.

Now another craze for location-specific technology systems has sprung up, although this time it is for wireless data networks rather than phones.

Rabbit phonepoint, Ivan Noble
Platform 1 at New Barnet
Companies such as BT and Megabeam are setting up wireless networks around the country that let anyone who has signed up sit down and get a fast link to the net.

BT plans to create hundreds of wireless hotspots by the end of 2003 in places such as airports and hotels.

But if the history of Rabbit and its peers is any guide, location-specific services may prove unpopular.

Peter Sahnen, who uses a Rabbit phone point in his home, thinks it does have a good chance.

"I don't think there are too many parallels between Rabbit and the new networking craze," he told BBC News Online.

"It's a lot more versatile, and will probably stay the course," he said. "At least till something better comes along.

"Also," he said, "it's not subject to the whims of a telecoms company."

Zones and nodes

But others are more sceptical.

Adam Zawel, an analyst at the Yankee Group, said the wireless, or WiFi, craze had taken off in the US but there were no guarantees that it would be a success.

Darren Gough at Headingley, PA
Wifi could be coming to sports grounds
Mr Zawel said many cities were now dotted with wireless hotspots.

One company, Wifi Metro, is planning to create a wireless zone six blocks long in San Jose, California. But, he said, this early enthusiasm had its downside.

"There has definitely been some over-hyping and some companies have had to pull back or go bust," he said.

Although the industry was relatively new, he said, there had already been some mergers and bankruptcies.

"The business models are still uncertain," he said. "That's why we've seen some early failures. It's an uncertain opportunity."

There were several problems facing the companies setting up the wireless networks, said Mr Zawel.

Free as air

To begin with, few companies know what to charge for occasional access to a wireless network. BT is reportedly considering prices of up to 85 per month.

Mr Zawel was also sceptical about the potential audience for such wireless services.

London warchalk, Ben Hammersley
Chalk marks can help spot wifi networks
The numbers of businessmen using data services on the move was low at the moment and was unlikely to be boosted by the creation of point specific services, he said.

The only places that might make something out of it were hotels which bundled in the charges with room rates, said Mr Zawel.

There were also technical problems to overcome, he said.

Currently there were few standardised ways of connecting up to WiFi hotspots, said Mr Zawel, which might make networks only a few metres apart hard to use by the same person.

The chances of anyone making money out of the wireless hotspots could be dented by the fact that many community groups and well-intentioned individuals are setting up networks anyone can use for free.

A craze called "warchalking" has sprung up that involves people putting chalk marks on the pavement or wall near to a wireless access point. The chalk marks give people basic information about how to use the node.

But the chalk marks could also mean that the writing is on the wall for commercial WiFi networks.

See also:

17 Oct 01 | Science/Nature
06 Nov 01 | Science/Nature
18 Mar 02 | dot life
16 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
24 May 02 | Technology
23 Jul 02 | Technology
01 Jul 02 | dot life
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