WLAN roaming offered between Scandinavia and Italy

Telia Mobile AB and the Italian unit of Megabeam Networks Ltd. have signed what both companies claim to be Europe’s first cross-border roaming agreement for wireless LAN (WLAN) services. The deal comes as several groups position themselves to offer Europe-wide roaming for the increasingly popular high-speed data service.

On Thursday of last week, Telia Mobile in Stockholm, and Megabeam in London announced an agreement to allow corporate customers to roam on WLAN hotspots already operating in Sweden and Italy. During a test phase to last until August 31, customers can roam for free. “After the trial, we will introduce a prepaid tariff for the roaming service,” said Ryan Jarvis, chief executive officer of Megabeam.

Jarvis declined to provide pricing details, saying only that the tariff for the Telia-Megabeam roaming service will be “significantly lower than roaming fees for GPRS (General Packet Radio Services).”

Telia Mobile’s wireless LAN service, called HomeRun, is currently available at 450 locations in the Nordic region and at several airports outside the region. The operator intends to build additional hot spots in select location around Europe, according to Hakan Strom, a spokesman for Telia Mobile.

Megabeam presently operates WLANs in Belgium, Germany, Netherlands and the U.K., in addition to Italy. The company plans to build and operate networks-mostly in key airports, train stations and hotels-in all major European markets, except for the Nordic region, where it will cooperate with Telia, according to Jarvis.

Both Telia Mobile and Megabeam offer WLAN service based on the 802.11b standard, established by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Inc. (IEEE) in New York.

WLAN technology, depending on protocol, can provide speeds from 5M bps (bits per second) up to 11M bps, under ideal conditions. By comparison, the average GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) handset offers a speed of 9.6K bps. New GPRS handsets are an improvement, with speeds between 192K bps and 384K bps. When 3G (third-generation) phones enter the market in Europe, they are supposed to operate at speeds between 384K bps and 2M bps.

Megabeam plans to offer both roaming and resale services to other operators seeking a broader WLAN footprint. “We expect to announce a number of deals with incumbent European telcos and one U.S. company shortly,” Jarvis said.

“Operators will need to share hot spots if they want to achieve real critical mass,” said Ross Pow, managing director of market research at Analysys Ltd. in Cambridge, England. “Roaming will facilitate this.”

Corporate users, according to Pow, will initially be the biggest users of WLAN services. “Since these people spend much of their time in hotels and airports, it makes sense for companies to offer international roaming services,” he said.

Several groups are entering the young market for roaming services. Excilan SA in Luxembourg, for instance, hopes to cash in on its years of experience in offering GSM roaming services.

In May, several WLAN service providers and hardware vendors established an industry association, called Pass-One, to facilitate WLAN roaming.