Software Turns Phones Into Hotspots

Forget looking for the nearest hotspot. All a small group of traveling workers needs to get online is one Wi-Fi-enabled smartphone and a new service from TapRoot Systems.

TapRoot's Walkinghotspot software turns a smartphone into a hotspot. Up to five people using laptops can connect to the smartphone via Wi-Fi, using the smartphone's 3G capabilities to connect to the Internet.

TapRoot launched the software and service this week. Users must subscribe and for now can pay US$6.99 a month or $24.99 a year for the service.

The software works on Windows Mobile and Symbian phones, although other devices including the iPhone could follow, said Sean O'Leary, vice president of business development for TapRoot, in an interview at the CTIA conference in San Francisco on Wednesday.

To allow others to connect to the Internet, a smartphone user launches the software, turning the phone into a hotspot. When a nearby laptop user detects the network and tries to connect, the phone user will see a message asking for approval of the laptop user's connection.

While essentially any number of laptops could connect to the smartphone, TapRoot limited it to five so that each can have reasonable throughput, O'Leary said. The company can limit the number of people connecting because each Wi-Fi user is authenticated through TapRoot's servers. That process also means that TapRoot could offer some different management capabilities if an operator wanted to market the service to users.

For now, end-users can sign up for the service and download the software through Walkinghotspot.com. TapRoot had hoped to launch the offering through an operator, which would preload the software on phones, but no carrier was ready to launch and TapLaunch was anxious to introduce the service, O'Leary said. "Thousands" of people have been trialing the software since April, and because they were limited to allowing only one person to connect to their phones, some have been asking to sign up to the expanded service, he said.

While TapRoot is hopeful that some operators will offer the Walkinghotspot software and service, O'Leary admits that the carriers are understandably concerned about the service potentially clogging their networks with data users. "Their first impression is cautiousness," he said.

However, because the Wi-Fi users connect though TapRoot's servers, TapRoot could allow the operators to meter the bandwidth, charge per user or offer day passes, O'Leary said.

In the meantime, he's waiting to see how the operators react as more people begin using Walkinghotspot. "It may happen that they'll get annoyed," O'Leary said. TapRoot was careful to inform operators that the service was going live so they wouldn't be surprised, he said.

O'Leary expects the service to appeal to road warriors, college students and families.

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