Optus to roll out 500 public WLAN hotspots

Optus, the habitual bridesmaid of the Australian telecommunications industry, has announced aggressive plans to roll out more than 500 Australian wireless hotspots in the next 12 to 18 months using the IEEE 802.11b standard in an attempt to target well-heeled road warriors and fans of American style caffeine.

Named “Wireless Connect”, pricing has also been announced with rates between A$12.10 and $9.90 an hour with various discounts and inclusions for monthly subscription fees.

Allen Lew, managing director of Optus Mobile Pty. Ltd., told Computerworld that the wireless rollout will initially target business customers in a number of key metropolitan locations. “Our initial hotspot rollout will focus on lifestyle cafes in key CBD locations as well as airports, hotels and major business centres. Customers can access our Wi-Fi service… at 14 locations including selected Delifrance and Hudsons stores as well as other locations in Sydney and Melbourne. In April (we will Wi-Fi) to 20 Gloria Jean’s coffee shops in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.”

Road warriors with subdued appetite for multinational food and beverage brands will have the relative sanctuary of upmarket hotel foyers such as the Melbourne’s Ramada, with users being able to purchase access over the counter in a revenue-sharing deal struck between the hotel chain and Optus. Melbourne Ramada’s general manager Javan Hollister said that he was hopeful that the deal would create a “new revenue stream in areas such as lobbies, which previously generated little or none”. Major hotels have struggled with depressed occupancy since September 11.

Gartner’s Australian research director for mobile and wireless, Robin Simpson, said that Optus had stolen a march and caught Telstra “napping” with the announcement.

“It’s interesting that for the first time it’s a carrier doing it. It’s fair to say that the business model for the start-up wireless access hot spot providers is a little bit ‘iffy’. It’s very difficult for a start-up organisation to not only find the capital to build a network, and become an expert in engineering wireless hotspots, and also at the same time build a sales organisation, and a customer care organisation and then go and find some customers. (Then) you need a lot of back haul infrastructure and a good relationship with a carrier. Carriers already own the back haul infrastructure, … and most importantly they’ve got the customers. Let’s face it, it’s a middle- and upper-income market, a business market and not really a consumer market.

“SingTel made a similar move in Singapore… where anyone who was already (one of its) service users was able to automatically use the hotspots. The hotels are an interesting casual access model – if you really need it, you’ll be prepared to pay. You need to be able to play with (it) to figure out whether you like it or not. Telstra has not yet formally launched its own service – or even announced what it intends to do with the infrastructure it bought from SkyNet Global. I’m not sure that Telstra understands the opportunity here — (it) doesn’t really seem to have a strategy it has communicated to anybody” Simpson said.