Wireless hotspots hit the road in late May as Ottawa-based BOLDstreet Wireless Internet announced installations at nine highway service centres across southern Ontario.

Using the IEEE 802.11b or WiFi wireless networking, the hotspots will let travelers with WiFi-equipped computers connect to

the Internet from anywhere inside the service centres.

BOLDstreet announced a deal with HMSHost, a subsidiary of Italy’s AutoGrill S.A., that runs food services in service plazas on Ontario highways 401 and 400. To start, BOLDstreet hotspots have been installed in service centres with Esso gas stations on the two expressways. If the companies like the results, hotspots will be added in eight more service centres that have Shell and PetroCanada stations.

The hotspots in the service centres have been running since mid-April, said Tom Camps, president of BOLDstreet. But in keeping with the company’s usual practice they were not promoted for the first 30 days. BOLDstreet likes to install hotspots quietly and wait three to four weeks before publicizing them to make sure they work smoothly and give staff a chance to learn about the service, Camps said.

Terry Walsh, president of HMSHost, said his company hopes the hotspots will encourage travelers to stop at service centres and buy food. HMSHost holds franchises for the food outlets, while oil companies sell the gas and the provincial transportation ministry owns the buildings.

A day pass to use the Internet service will cost $9.99 for a 24-hour period.

Wireless hotspots are proliferating in airports, train stations, coffee shops, hotels and other locations across Canada. Bell Canada has been testing them in several locations, including first-class airport lounges in Toronto, Montreal and Calgary. BOLDstreet has about 40 operating hotspots, only about 20 of which have been publicly announced, said Camps. He added traffic is building.

“”If you had asked me three months ago I would have said it sucks,”” he said of traffic levels. “”From a business perspective it’s still not where I need it or anybody else needs it to be, but we’re really starting to see takeup.””

Michael Rozender, an Oakville, Ont. consultant specializing in wireless networking, said takeup of hotspots in restaurants and coffee shops “”has not been that great,”” but highway service centres are logical locations for the services. “”I personally would take advantage of it,”” Rozender said, adding that truckers and business travelers are obvious potential customers for the services.

Camps said BOLDstreet expects highway hotspots to appeal first to business travelers anxious to check e-mail as they stop for coffee and breaks. However, he said, BOLDstreet hopes eventually to reach a broader consumer market — such as parents who want to download games for their children.

Phil Fenton, IT manager and sales engineer for Mississauga-based Roadpost Inc., a reseller of cell phones, satellite phones and remote Internet access, uses some of BOLDstreet’s other hotspots and has tried one of the new locations on Highway 400. He expects the highway hotspots could be useful as he travels between client locations from London to Peterborough, Ont.

An 802.11 transceiver theoretically can serve a radius of about 100 metres, but Camps said actual coverage depends on the site. Some service centres are barbell-shaped, with a central corridor linking separate food franchises at each end, and hotspots had to be positioned carefully to cover these. BOLDstreet requires its contractors to carry out site surveys and test coverage after the hotspots are installed, he said.

Currently, each service centre has one WiFi transceiver. Later, BOLDstreet hopes to extend service to the parking lots so travelers can log on from their cars. Camps said welcome screens that display on travelers’ computers when they connect to hotspots could be used to advertise services inside the centres.

Camps added anyone connecting to the Internet by any means should take basic security precautions, such as using firewall and anti-virus software. Connections to corporate systems should go through virtual private networks (VPNs). However, he said, hotspots use different equipment than office wireless networks, so two computers connected to the same hotspot cannot see each other as they would on an office network.

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