Firms cool to hotspots

Public Wireless LAN hotspots have captured the imagination of the press and tech-savvy users, but they aren’t yet winning over Canadian enterprises seeking Internet services for their mobile workforces.

Businesses may get wilder about Wi-Fi as hotspot numbers increase and wireless security fears decrease, but for now, few organizations are rolling public wireless services into their IT strategies.

A recent IDC Canada study on the WLAN market found a mere four per cent of Canadian enterprises surveyed used hotspot services in the first quarter of 2003. An additional six per cent said they planned to use hotspot services within the next 12 months. But approximately 80 per cent of the companies surveyed said they had no plans to use Wi-Fi hotspots within the next year.

There are several reasons why enterprise hotspot use is taking off slowly.

One major factor is security, said Warren Chaisatien, a senior telecom analyst with IDC Canada. Businesses are afraid that wireless transmissions at public hotspots can be intercepted and compromise corporate networks.

Another issue is availability.

“At this point in time, if someone has 30 hotspot locations across Canada, the usefulness is very limited,” Chaisatien said.

Providers need to continue to add hotspots and hammer out roaming agreements with other hotspot providers and next-generation wireless carriers to drive demand, he said.

Limited availability is why the University of British Columbia hasn’t signed a Wi-Fi agreement for its faculty and students, said Jonn Martell, wireless project manager with UBC. The school is in the last stages of completing a wireless network at its Vancouver campus and would like to sign an agreement with a hotspot provider to give the school’s users some roaming capabilities.

UBC wants to sign on with a provider who can offer a large coverage area, because the university doesn’t want users to have more than one account for roaming.

“There are a few leaders out there,” Martell said. “For example, T-Mobile is very present in the U.S., but has very little, if anything, in Canada.”

UBC has talked to some Canadian providers, including FatPort, a Vancouver-based hotspot provider, but the school isn’t satisfied that any of the companies offer extensive coverage across the country.

“We really want to make sure there’s one account,” Martell said. “So the roaming agreement would have to be with a large provider. The acid test will really be if our users can get the service at the Vancouver International Airport.”

Martell doesn’t feel that security is a major problem at wireless hotspots, noting that users have been connecting to the university network over non-secure wireline networks for years.

“The bottom line is you can’t really trust any external networks, because it’s impossible to know, unless you’re highly technical, whether they’re really secure or not,” he explained.

On-campus, UBC relies on the 802.1x wireless security protocol, as well as built-in encryption and authentication to ensure secure connections.

For users connecting to the school from off-campus, UBC provides two types of virtual private network software.

The standard VPN uses Microsoft’s Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP) technology. PPTP is easy to set up, because it’s built into a lot of platforms, including the new Palm personal digital assistants, Martell noted.

“We’re happy with that as our baseline,” he said. “The attacks that can be mounted on that have to be sophisticated. There’s no off-the-shelf tool that can be used to attack it.”

For mission-critical, or more administrative applications, UBC relies on an IPSec-based VPN, which offers encryption, authentication and key management.

“I think those will stay with us for a while,” Martell said. “I don’t see the day where we’ll trust all the hotspots out there.”

The Landscape

Canadian hotspot providers recognize the Wi-Fi market is still in its infancy. Companies such as FatPort, Spotnik Mobile, BoldStreet and Bell Canada have only really begun to dip their toes in the Wi-Fi waters, but all are still expanding their operations.

“It’s definitely still in the early stages,” said Murray McCaig, co-CEO of Spotnik. “It’s not a mass market service and I don’t think it will be in the near term. I think the hype in the marketplace on this far outweighs the reality.”

Spotnik, which received six million dollars in funding from Telus Corp. last November, should have about 190 locations in Canada by the end of the year. That will include a Wi-Fi trial with Via Rail, which will allow riders on some trains to connect to the Internet through a combination of wireless LAN and satellite technology as the train moves.

Spotnik also plans to participate in a national rollout with Telus. McCaig said the two providers will go public with a number of locations in Western Canada in the next few weeks.

Bell Canada, which recently rolled out a wireless trial of its own with Via, has about 25 hotspots in place now and doesn’t plan to add any more before the end of the year, said spokesperson Don Blair.

Bell, like other Wi-Fi providers, has concentrated on high-traffic areas, such as airport and train lounges, marinas and hospital waiting areas.

Bell got into the hotspot market as a result of customer demand, Blair said. After the carrier began offering Wi-Fi implementation services to business customers last fall, those same customers began expressing an interest in having the ability to roam outside the office and stay connected.

“That’s why we felt the people that would be using it would be these early adopters or the mobile business professional,” Blair said. “And that’s what we’ve seen in our pilots. The heaviest usage has been at places like Union Station (in Toronto) and the Maple Leaf lounges (operated by Air Canada) where there are business travellers or commuters.”

Since no single provider appears likely to have thousands of hotspots across the country any time soon, roaming agreements between providers will be important, said Malcolm McDonald, a spokesperson for FatPort.

Handing it off

In addition to working on roaming agreements with other providers, FatPort is growing its presence by selling to so-called “virtual hotspot operators.”

The virtual operators can market and sell their own hotspot services, while FatPort provides the gear. Customers of the virtual operators and FatPort’s customers will be able to roam across each other’s networks. FatPort’s largest virtual operator is SaskTel, the incumbent carrier in Saskatchewan.

Even roaming agreements won’t be enough for wireless users seeking an always-on mobile connection. That’s why hotspot providers are looking for technology that could provide a seamless handoff between a wireless hotspot and a next-generation wireless network.

Although several carriers are currently testing dual-mode modems that provide service on both wireless LANs and next-generation wireless networks, the existing modems won’t allow users to roam from one network to another without having to log in again.

Spotnik’s McCaig isn’t completely convinced that seamless wireless roaming is a service users want.

“We need to see a demand for it,” he said. “We’re not hearing from many people that they’d hate to re-log in when they go from the street to the caf