Network vendors help carriers do WLAN

Network infrastructure vendors are jumping in to help mobile network operators set up “hot spots” where mobile users can get a boost in speed while sitting in a cafe or waiting for a flight.

Hewlett-Packard Co. and Transat Technologies Inc. have agreed to combine their network management software to help mobile operators provide wireless LAN hot spot service to their cellular customers, the companies announced Monday. Juniper Networks Inc. also announced a new application of its broadband aggregation platforms and service management system that will make it easier for carriers to set up and manage hot spots.

HP announced that Southlake, Texas-based Transat’s software can be integrated with OpenCall SS7, HP’s software for carrier signalling. The integration will allow operators to authenticate and bill users for hot-spot data access and roaming using systems they have today for cellular voice and data services, said Maurice Marks, chief technology officer of the network and service provider business at HP, in Palo Alto, California. That should lower the cost of setting up hot spots, the companies said. For customers, it will mean the ability to switch easily between cellular voice and data services and the faster hot-spot services, and even use other providers’ hot spots, and then get just one bill from one provider, the companies said.

Established wireless providers are just beginning to embrace hot spots, which some Internet service providers already offer in public places such as cafes, hotel lobbies and airports. The networks allow visitors with wireless LAN-equipped notebook PCs and other clients to reach a high-speed network connection, such as a 1.5M bps (bit-per-second) T-1 line, over a LAN connection of 11M bps or more.

Mobile operators with GSM/GPRS (Global System for Mobile Communications/General Packet Radio Service) networks use a smart card called the SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) to identify users on the network and keep track of their use of services. Transat’s software supports SIM-based authentication and billing in public wireless LANs and lets carriers use an existing management system called HLR (home location register) for hot spot services, according to the company. Carriers can also set up provisions for “walk-in” customers to use the LAN even if they aren’t already cellular customers.

The Transat software now can be integrated with HP’s OpenCall SS7 middleware to create management systems that run on Linux. HP’s services arm will offer carriers consulting, customization and support. The integration with OpenCall SS7 will open the door to hot-spot roaming agreements among different service providers using the existing SS7 (Signaling System 7) inter-operator signaling infrastructure. It also could allow carriers to extend services such as voice over IP (Internet Protocol) to the wireless LANs, Marks said.

Also Monday, Sunnyvale, California-based Juniper unveiled templates for operators to use in setting up the company’s E-series broadband aggregation devices and SDX-300 management systems. This is a new application of the platforms that will allow carriers to handle user authentication and service creation for multiple hot spots from a carrier facility. Handling those tasks centrally instead of at the hot spot is more easily scalable and costs less for technician visits, said Mike Capuano, director of product marketing at Juniper. Two carriers in the Asia-Pacific region already have deployed such a system, Capuano said. The templates, which consist of software and documentation, are available now, priced on a case-by-case basis depending on the carrier, he said.

Making public wireless LANs easy to use is hard for mobile operators, said analyst Keith Waryas at IDC, in Framingham, Massachusetts. For example, billing systems can be adapted to include hot spots, but the usage model is different. Customers usually sign in to one wireless LAN, use it for a while, log off and sign in to a different one later on, whereas cellular data services use constant handoffs between networks, he said. Also, carriers and the Internet service providers that operate hot spots may have different ideas of what constitutes reliable service.

Many users would love a service that would automatically shift a connection on to a hot spot network when they get to one, but it has to be easy, he said.

“The customer is always going to want to have the fastest speed available, and at the same time they don’t want to lose anything in that hand-off,” Waryas said. “There may be a pop-up message that tells me I’ve gone onto a faster service, but I don’t have to do anything about it. And that’s a challenge,” he added.

“If you offer a product that has all these great benefits but (the customer gets) two separate bills for it, it’s not going to work,” Waryas said.