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Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: Free Wi-Fi makes money

That the product of the Year trophy lives at the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport is particularly fitting for this year's New Hampshire High Tech Council winner. The Internet network developed by Single Digits is designed to provide weary travelers quick Wi-Fi access at hotels, shopping centers and other locales.

Through the Manchester company's Open Network Exchange, businesses allow customers to use social media accounts such as Facebook and Twitter to access the Internet, avoiding the need for a separate log-on page at each destination - something people on the go find to be a hassle when they need instant Wi-Fi.

"Wouldn't it be great if we could solve this problem by simply allowing you to arrive at your destination, seamlessly connect to the network, use a Facebook app or a Google app or Twitter account and automatically or dynamically authenticate you to the network? That's possible today through our exchange," Single Digits founder Stephen Singlar said Tuesday evening as he pitched his company to a crowd of more than 200 at the SERESC Center in Bedford.

The cloud-based software acts as a hub, allowing Single Digits' clients to easily turn on new services and partner with social media companies to share advertising revenue from their networks.

Singlar was among the executives from four companies who presented their products at the eighth annual competition. The winner was selected based on votes from a panel of judges who evaluated the businesses before the event and audience votes that night for Single Digits and its competitors: BurstPoint Networks, Merrimack; Granite State Manufacturing, Manchester; and Labsphere, North Sutton.

When Singlar started Single Digits 10 years ago in his garage in Exeter, Internet access was not so commonplace, and demand was at an all-time high, he told the crowd.

"As many of you know, there were very limited options for getting connectivity outside your home or business. Single Digits looked at the problem in a new way," Singlar said. "We thought the best way to add Internet access to venues would be to allow business owners to build, own and operate their own networks."

For years, that drove the company's growth as Single Digits sold hotels and retail organizations on running their own Internet networks. But that model is changing as those clients strive to give their customers quick and easy access.

And the best way to do that is to give it away, Singlar said.

"I had the CIO of a large gaming company say to me not long ago, 'How do I spend $30 million, give away free Internet access and still make $10 million a year off my system?' That was our opportunity," Singlar said.

Single Digits has signed on several hotel chains, including MGM, Starwood and Intercontinental; and major retailers like the Simon Property Group, which owns shopping malls nationwide including the Mall of New Hampshire in Manchester, the Premium Outlets in Merrimack and several others in the Granite State.

"Through an array of authentication partners, through open standards, we authenticate users, track clicks and distribute revenue across the partners," Singlar said. "Think of it as a virtual marketplace similar to Google+ or Apple's iTunes stores. We enable businesses to connect with a variety of authentication partners and monetization tools to allow their commercial networks to operate very much like the private networks in your home."

Except the private networks in your home don't enable you to reap profits from advertising.

"To give you an idea of the size of this market, social media advertising is currently a $4 billion market space. It will be a $7 billion market space in 2014," Singlar said. "That's a lot of competition for eyeballs. They make money by you and I connecting to those applications."

Such numbers attract hotel clients like MGM.

"They want to market and advertise to their consumers across social media, Facebook being a big one. We make this easy for them," Singlar said. "If that relationship doesn't work, they can quickly and easily move to Google or Twitter or some other relationship that most benefits their business."

Interest in the Open Network Exchange has fueled more growth than Single Digits has ever experienced, Singlar said. Since January, the company has grown from 83 employees to 130. It soon will leave its 10,000-square-foot headquarters in Manchester for twice as much space in Bedford.

In September, Single Digits won the Platinum Award in Gaming & Leisure magazine's 2013 Gaming and Hospitality Awards in Las Vegas. Winning the High Tech Council's Product of the Year award gives the company another marketing tool to attract new clients, Singlar told the New Hampshire Sunday News after winning the award Tuesday night.

"To make the exchange work the right way and bring in new partners, we obviously want to bring in additional networks to our exchange," he said. "We also want to bring as many additional partners as we can."

Mike Cote is business editor at the Union Leader. Contact him at 668-4321, ext. 324 or

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