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Starbucks wireless network a sweet deal for MobileStar

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Starbucks Coffee this summer will launch one of the largest wireless network initiatives ever, rolling out high-speed Internet access in all 4,000 of its North American shops.

The initiative is a boon to MobileStar Network, the ISP responsible for the wireless LAN connectivity in each Starbucks stores and the backbone network connecting the shops to the Internet. MobileStar expects Starbucks will account for 50% of its network footprint by 2003.

"This is one of the largest wireless networks that is going to be deployed globally for sure," says Ali Tabassi, CTO and development officer at MobileStar. "This is our biggest project."

Tabassi says MobileStar is seeing interest in its wireless network from other hospitality chains. Among MobileStar's customers are American Airlines Admirals Clubs and Columbia Sussex Hotels.

"As we continue expanding our footprint to support Starbucks, it becomes more convenient for them to sign up," Tabassi says.

Other IT companies benefiting from the Starbucks project are Microsoft, which is providing a customized Web browsing experience, and Compaq, which will provide wireless LAN cards and iPaq Pocket PCs for loan or purchase at the shops.

"Starbucks was seeing more business people and college people come into their shops with laptops to drink lattes while they worked," says Dayna Fried, Compaq's spokeswoman on the Starbucks project. "[The company] thought: Why not turn Starbucks into a place to hold business meetings? They had to go wireless because they didn't want people to trip over wires."

Starbucks began talking about its wireless plans in January and will launch the service in Dallas, Seattle and San Francisco by mid-summer.

Each Starbucks will have an 802.11b wireless LAN that is hooked up to a T-1 line out to MobileStar's backbone. At each store, MobileStar is installing a wireless transceiver that can transmit and receive messages as well as a premises router and a miniswitch that hooks into a dedicated T-1.

"We have deployed in over 350 Starbucks locations. The majority of them are installed in Seattle, San Francisco, San Jose, Dallas, New York and Houston," Tabassi says.

When a person with a wireless device, such as a laptop or handheld, comes into a Starbucks shop and opens up the Web browser, a welcome screen will be pushed onto the computer that provides information about Starbucks' promotions. End users who want Internet access will need to sign up as subscribers to the MobileStar service.

Starbucks' graphic

MobileStar will offer Starbucks customers two types of subscriptions that are good wherever they access the MobileStar network: monthly plans that start at $15.95 for 200 minutes per month or a pay-as-you-go plan that costs 20 cents per minute.

To access the MobileStar service, Starbucks customers will need a wireless LAN-capable device. Starbucks and Compaq officials are working on a scheme to offer wireless LAN cards and iPaqs to customers on a loan basis if they don't have a wireless-enabled computer, Fried says. Starbucks also may sell wireless LAN cards and iPaqs - which retail for $500 to $1,000 - at some stores.

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