The public wireless LAN business will not take off until international roaming agreements are in place that let users log on to different networks in the same way mobile phone users do today, with the billing controlled by the home network.
This was the message from a stream of delegates at SMI's Public Wireless LAN conference in London in November. But others warned of the market running before it was walking, fearing that long-term roaming agreements signed today may become burdensome in a fast changing market.
"When I step off a plane in Morocco, I turn my phone on and it automatically finds a GSM network," Niall Murphy, technical director at network provider The Cloud, told the conference. "That is what we want with Wi-Fi, where my device will connect to whatever hotspot is nearby and link to it in a way I am familiar."
He said some users just want to log on to collect emails but today it could take three minutes to log on and then you have to buy a minimum of 30 minutes access. "This is a significant barrier we need to get over," he said. "We will see a need increasing for people to be always-on in a hotspot. Roaming agreements are growing but are limited. We want every user to log onto every network and not just authenticate them but give them the type of experience they get on their home network."
But Kelly Odell (pictured below left), vice-president for sales at TeliaSonera in Sweden, said, "If we put the roaming agreements together now, it might be prohibitive to the business taking off. We don't know how the business will take off, so how can we have roaming agreements?"
He said the industry should wait until the business started growing and then make the roaming agreements.
Jonathan Geoghegan, business product manager at O2 in Ireland, though believes it is not possible to make money from public WLAN at the moment. "But when roaming happens from the US, there may be a possibility," he said. "The big change will be when we get seamless roaming, where people will log on just as they do at home without vouchers and without feeding in credit card details."
Philip Coen, chief executive officer at Netario Wireless, added, "You need to give the consumer the ability to get off a plane in the US and use the laptop." He believes that the hotspot model should be scrapped in favour of hotzones covering large areas, even cities.
l T-Mobile USA and iPass have announced a distribution agreement, T-Mobile's first Wi-Fi inbound roaming agreement, that will enable corporations to access the T-Mobile HotSpot network through the iPass virtual network.
In 2003, 14% of iPass' European users travelled to the US. Now the hotspots that are currently available in the clubs and lounges of American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta AirLines in the US will be available to iPass users in Europe that fly with the oneworld, Star and SkyTeam alliances respectively.
"This new distribution agreement enables corporations to easily connect to our network with the iPassConnect service interface they already use today," said Joe Sims, vice president and general manager of T-Mobile HotSpot. "This agreement with iPass continues to underscore our strategy of focusing on the enterprise market and meeting the needs of enterprise customers."