Public wireless LAN services gain momentum

The already-considerable buzz surrounding public wireless LAN services has increased dramatically with the launch of Cometa Networks two weeks ago by industry bigwigs Intel Corp., AT&T Corp. and IBM Corp.

The new company plans to offer Wi-Fi services across the U.S. While Cometa will be far from the first with such an offering, the muscle of these players is expected to add oomph to the world of public Wi-Fi services. The result could be more business users turning to Wi-Fi for their remote-access needs, experts say.

Wireless LAN or Wi-Fi technology has been around for almost three years, yet most corporate network executives have been content to watch from the sidelines.

While plenty of organizations have deployed wireless LANs on campuses or in office buildings, public Wi-Fi services that allow users to access corporate networks from airports, hotels or coffee shops are only expected to take off in the next few years.

“Business users will be the primary Wi-Fi user,” says Roberta Wiggins, a director at The Yankee Group. Of 200 IT managers recently surveyed, only 3 percent said they were using public Wi-Fi services, but 38 percent said they were interested in using such services.

The availability of wireless CRM applications, an ongoing increase in user mobility and the proliferation of Wi-Fi products and access points are spurring interest in these wireless LAN services, Wiggins says. “But the jury is still out on how big of a market it will ultimately be,”she adds.

The Wi-Fi basics

Wireless LAN or Wi-Fi services are based on the IEEE 802.11b specification, which uses the 2.4-GHz spectrum to transmit data. The specification supports data rates at up to 11M bit/sec, but it is shared access and no one user would see 11M bit/sec. Users typically only need to sign up with a Wi-Fi service provider and deploy a Wi-Fi PC card on their laptop to surf the Web or access e-mail. Users have to be in relatively close proximity to a hot spot to access the Wi-Fi network.

If you’ve heard anything about Wi-Fi, you’ve heard about security problems. While the IEEE is working on new specifications that address security, customers today should use a VPN client that offers end-to-end encryption, experts say.

National coverage and roaming agreements are two other lingering issues surrounding Wi-Fi services.

There are a handful of providers offering Wi-Fi services around the U.S. and, in some cases, globally that take full advantage of roaming agreements. Companies that fit into this category include Boingo Wireless, Gric Communications and iPass. The latter two have built businesses by offering global remote access to the Internet for traveling users by teaming with ISPs that lets Gric or iPass customers access points of presence using local dial-up numbers.

Both are taking this business model and applying it to the Wi-Fi world. Gric and iPass have put together Wi-Fi “hot spot” networks that let customers wirelessly roam the Internet. Neither company owns these access points, but strikes deals with local wireless providers. Boingo has a similar model.

Boingo also works with Wi-Fi service providers across the U.S. to put together a national network for business users. But Boingo is teaming with FiberLink to offer users a business-quality VPN service over its patchwork of Wi-Fi access points.

FiberLink offers its Global Remote VPN service, which includes an integrated firewall and antivirus software and policy management support. FiberLink Wi-Fi customers use the same software client as FiberLink’s dial-up or landline Global Remote customers, but use Boingo’s access network.

The service includes service rates “tailored for enterprise users,” says Howard Pressman, mobile professional solutions manager at FiberLink. Customers pay for the service based on usage per 24-hour period, not on the number of users accessing the network. Users pay from US$2 to $5 per connection, per month. Customers that guarantee a higher number of connections per month are entitled to the lower rate, Pressman says.

FiberLink’s Wi-Fi VPN offering is one of the only enterprise products available today, but that distinction is unlikely to last. Companies such as Cometa and T-Mobile also are targeting the business market.

Cometa says it will have 20,000 access points deployed in 50 states by 2004, but the company is ironing out details such as network design, support and service offerings for business customers.

Last year, T-Mobile (then VoiceStream) acquired most of MobileStar’s assets and invested $2.5 million to keep the failed Wi-Fi provider’s network up and running. The deal gave T-Mobile access points, or hot spots, across the U.S. and an access deal with Starbucks coffeehouses.

Since the acquisition, T-Mobile has built out 2,000 access points with plans for at least 5,000 by the end of next year.

“We have a Wi-Fi-building machine here,” says Frank Ramirez, product manager at T-Mobile. “We’re not just throwing them up. We’re putting a lot of engineering behind the rollout.”

T-Mobile’s deal with Starbucks lets customers access the carrier’s network while sipping latt’s at 1,200 stores. Although T-Mobile service has a consumer feel, the idea is that business users can seek out a Starbucks to connect to their corporate networks wirelessly. T-Mobile has a similar deal with Borders Books and Music stores.

T-Mobile offers a variety of service plans. The standard national offer costs $50 per month, which includes a 500M byte data transmission ceiling.

While AT&T proper is part of Cometa, the carrier’s wireless division is also getting into Wi-Fi on its own.

AT&T Wireless took over a failed Wi-Fi service provider’s network at the Denver International Airport. It quietly has upgraded that network and offered traveling business users a way to access their corporate networks in one of the busiest airports in the country.

“We’re trying to figure out how to build a business with public spectrum. We have to be good at understanding the technology and negotiating good agreements with owners of venues and selling a service that enterprise users will want,” says Steve Hodges, vice president of strategy and business development at AT&T Wireless.

AT&T is in the process of negotiating roaming agreements with other Wi-Fi service providers.

“We are certainly looking at national Wi-Fi services as one of our options,” Hodges says. “But before that can happen, network providers have to work together to support open networks with roaming agreements.”

AT&T Wireless’ Wi-Fi network is limited, but it has only worked with the technology on a live network since June. The carrier is not yet offering a specific business-class service.

Competitors poised to act

Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless are not as active as T-Mobile and AT&T Wireless, but both are interested in the technology.

“Wi-Fi has been on our radar screen for quite a while,” says Jason Guesman, director of business marketing at Sprint PCS. “It’s complementary to our wide-area data services, and a lot of our efforts are in evaluating how to incorporate Wi-Fi into our 3G offerings and 3G into Wi-Fi offerings.”

Verizon Wireless has a similar take but says issues still have to be worked out. Verizon Wireless doesn’t have public Wi-Fi services available, but it is “talking with potential business partners in this space,” a company spokesman says.

The company offers customers a service in which Verizon deploys Wi-Fi networks locally for customers. There is the belief that if users are familiar with wireless LANs, even if deployed privately, they would be more likely to use public Wi-Fi services, The Yankee Group’s Wiggins says. That’s why providers such as Verizon Wireless and Nextel are offering enterprise wireless LAN deployment services, she says. “The next step would be to provide public wireless LAN service,” she adds.

But Verizon says that issues as simple as billing and as advanced as security still have to be worked out before public Wi-Fi services will be introduced.