Wi-Fi is in the air

If the first day of the month is any indicator, March may be the month of Wi-Fi with various announcements coming out on Monday regarding the fast growing technology.

Sony of Canada Ltd. announced that it is bringing wireless hotspot access to users of its Clie handheld and Vaio notebook wireless products while the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) introduced an inter-carrier agreement to establish common standards for roaming and interoperability of the hotspots that the four carriers who have signed the agreement to date, operate.

Bell Mobility, Microcell Solutions, Rogers AT&T Wireless and Telus Mobility will be branded consistently with one logo in order to make accessing Wi-Fi less confusing to the user, according to the CWTA. Users that log onto a wireless network in any of the locations hosted by the carriers will be presented with an identical browser-based log-in area.

Although the four major carriers are the first to sign the agreement, there is room for other Canadian operators or hotspot owners to join the roaming alliance in the future, according to the CWTA.

Sony of Canada’s announcement to provide Wi-Fi access to some of its customers is possible through partnerships with wireless LAN (WLAN) services providers Fatport Corp. and Spotnik Mobile Inc. — organizations which have not yet sighed the roaming agreement.

Users with access to Sony’s Clie PEG-UX50, PEG-TH55, PEG-TJ37 and PEG-TJ37C handhelds or Vaio GRT, K, TR, V505 and Z1 series notebook PCs will have 30 days of free Wi-Fi service anywhere the two wireless Internet service providers (ISPs) have hotspot locations, said Puneet Jain, product manager, Vaio Notebook Personal Computers, audio visual/information technology group, Sony of Canada.

According to Sony, this promotion will only be available to customers that purchase the wireless products before June 30, 2004.

Sony partnered with the two WLAN providers because of their leadership position in the market as well as the history the three companies share in that the Clie group partnered with the two WLAN providers last year on a similar promotion, Jain said.

Jain added that the time of year also played a role in Sony’s decision to form the partnership now.

“This is a perfect time for us to partner and promote Wi-Fi as we launch our new Spring line-up of notebooks and all models have integrated Wi-Fi capability,” Jain noted.

Sarah Kim, an analyst with The Yankee Group in Boston said that by forming this type of partnership, Sony Canada is taking a stance as a heavy promoter of Wi-Fi technology. She added that this kind of effort, which is very similar to what Intel Corp. is doing, will help drive the market further into the consumer segments.

Although this particular offering is free for only 30 days, Kim said there is a trend in the market right now where more and more traditional hotspot locations including coffee houses, airports and hotel lounges are giving their customers Wi-Fi access for free on a permanent basis.

She said the concern that used to be present surrounding whether or not the public Wi-Fi service market was a revenue generator, is dying off. The coffee houses and hotels are starting to offer the service for more of a “value add or just because” but as the technology becomes more popular and familiar, she said offering a Wi-Fi service free to customers will become standard.

In order to get the technology to a point where it is well understood and accepted a couple of things have to happen — the number of hotspot locations must increase and the service must be provided with consistency, according to the CWTA.

On top of making the log-in page more consistent, the carriers signed to the agreement plan to simplify payment options as well.

Traditionally, users would have to use their credit card to order time from a WLAN provider. With the new agreement however, customers of the carriers involved will be able to charge their Wi-Fi usage to their existing bills from their wireless providers.

The carriers have committed to building more than 500 hotspot locations over the next 12 months. This, according to the carriers, will more than double the number of locations in Canada.

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