Bell launches wireless hotspots

During a press conference on Tuesday at Toronto’s Union Station, Bell took the wraps off “AccessZone,” a wireless LAN (WLAN) pilot project consisting of wireless access points set up in transient spaces across central Canada, such as train stations and airports.

Users carrying notebooks or handheld computers with 802.11b network interface cards can connect at AccessZone stations to collect e-mail, surf and correspond with corporate networks while travelling.

Bell installed AccessZone devices at the Via Rail Panorama lounge in Montreal’s Central Station, the departure area of Dorval International Airport, Kingston, Ont.’s Confederation Park and Marina, that city’s St. Lawrence College, Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, Calgary International and Union Station.

In the future, Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital will sport an AccessZone, as will Kingston’s Frontenac Public Library. Bell expects other locations to come online as the project expands.

According to Kerry Eberwein, general manager of Bell’s cabling and WLAN business unit, AccessZone represents the next step in wireless computing for the enterprise.

“Mobile customers are saying they want to stay connected when they’re out of the office,” Eberwein said, adding that Bell is building on its new WLAN installation and management business, launched in November.

“Certainly the enterprise customers are looking to Bell for support,” he said.

Bell built AccessZone on two platforms. One essentially transforms some of the firm’s payphones into wireless stations. The other employs devices hidden behind walls and ceilings, marked with the AccessZone logo to alert users.

Support comes from a 3Mbps pipe, so each AccessZone should be able to handle 30 users at a time, Eberwein said. However, users are obliged to take care of their own security measures, such as VPNs, when connecting.

While the Bell announcement might be useful for some users, Warren Chaisatien, an industry analyst with IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto, said AccessZone changes the face of corporate IT management, and not necessarily for the better. For example, today the enterprise’s tech manager faces issues at the office, and the office alone. But as users become accustomed to services like AccessZone, the tech manager must consider problems with a wireless network beyond her control.

Does AccessZone represent an ensuing headache for corporate IT? “No doubt,” Chaisatien said, adding that the remedy is not so simple as a couple of painkillers.

“Going forward I see departments within corporations becoming more comprehensive, what with data, voice, wireline and wireless all converging. We are starting to see merged telecom-data management in corporations, but it’s still very small. If that type of department becomes more popular, they should be able to handle future problems.”

Chaisatien called AccessZone a “bold move” on Bell’s part, noting that the race for dominance in Canada’s wireless access market is heating up.

Bell is not the only company eyeing this space. Telus Corp. in November invested $6 million in Spotnik Mobile, a Toronto-based WLAN service provider. [Please see Spotnik secures Wi-Fi funding from Telus.] That team plans to launch early next year with wireless hotspots like AccessZone. As well, Nortel Networks Corp. earlier this month announced its intention to partner with Ottawa’s Bridgewater Systems, an IP software developer. Together the companies hope to marry mobile phone technology with 802.11 infrastructure. [Please see Companies unify wireless mates.]

Why all the interest in WLAN technology? Chaisatien said it’s the result of a growing number of WLAN users in the enterprise and their increased desire for similar connections beyond the office walls.

“As enterprise users get used to this kind of connectivity, when they go out, they want the same thing,” he said. “It’s important for Bell to be there, to dominate the beachhead, as users go wireless.”

Chaisatien said Bell correctly identified its target audience as travelling executives. After all, “those people carry a lot of laptops and PDAs today, and they do spend a lot of time waiting for trains and planes in stations.”

Bell’s AccessZone pilot project is scheduled to last three months. During that time users will be able to connect for free, as the carrier collects usage data and tries to learn just how much money customers are willing to pay for the service. Eberwein said Bell intends to parlay this information into a business model that would see AccessZone become permanent and financially self-sustaining.