I decided to give a second look at MetroFi’s free WiFi service which currently exists for 6 cities in the US. One of these cities, is the city I am living in, Foster City in the Bay Area.
I had my QTek 9100 smartphone with me when I passed by a tower with a MetroFi box on it and so I used my phone’s built-in wifi capability to connect. Some points:
* The boxes supposedly can offer service up to 300ft in plain sight, but I found that in reality they don’t do more than 230ft. The map they show supposedly fills up the whole city, but this is not true. Only if you are within 250ft in plain sight or about 70ft without plain sight you will get a signal. My appartment for example does not have a signal at all, because it is facing in the other direction, even if it’s about 70ft away from one of these boxes.
* After I moved below a MetroFi tower, I got a good signal. The one I stopped at, was also a bus stop. People were awaiting for a bus. And given the fact that the SkyPilot boxes MetroFi uses (check their PDFs) are very strong, radiation-wise, it is a tricky situation. Trust me, you don’t want to be too close to these boxes and surf all day, or you might end up lose your hair… These Skypilot boxes are many times stronger than the home-based Wifi routers (which also radiate quite a bit).
* In the initial connection you have to give away your email address, sex, age, income and other information. You have to manually opt out off their mailing list. As Americans say, “there is no such thing as free lunch”.
* But you know, I was ok with all the above. Until I saw that their system does not recognize mobile devices automatically, and so I was served FRAMES with an ad on the top of the browser, and the requested web page underneath. This left me on my PocketPC/cellphone with only half the screen available to browse the internet. Ads don’t always appear, it’s a 50-50 chance you will be served an ad or not. One curious thing is that Slashdot’s mobile page never gets any ads, but osnews.com’s does. Look, let’s make one thing clear: I don’t mind these ads. They are really not intrusive when used on a laptop. But they are not mobile-friendly on smartphones and PDAs.
* Regarding downloading speed, it’s ok if you are not getting served ads. For some reason, when you are about to get served an ad, downloading of your web page is much slower. No, that’s not because of the additional bytes (we are not talking about big graphical ads here, just merely a Yahoo! search box), but it seems that MetroFi’s end is not fully optimized to speedily load from their ad server an ad. So basically, what they need to optimize is not their net connection, but their ad server.
* Conclusion: MetroFi is an acceptable solution if you are using a laptop and you have good signal where you are standing. If you are using a cellular or PDA device, the experience degrades to the floor, because half of your screen real estate goes away and makes browsing essentially useless and unpractical. MetroFi must autodetect the 10 most-used mobile browser user agents (e.g. Pocket IE, Blazer, Netfront, Opera Mobile (tricky autodetection, but this code can do it), Opera Mini, Openwave UP.Browser, Symbian WebKit, Nokia browser, WebPro, Obigo) and give a full screen ad to these browsers, and then a “press here to go to the requested page” link/button. This way, they can make their service more compatible with mobile browsers (no frames, you see), and it won’t take away all the real screen estate while browsing.