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Bumpy road ahead for Wi-Fi roaming

And Intel needs it to be smoother...
Written by CNET Networks, Contributor

And Intel needs it to be smoother...

At the launch of the Centrino-based notebooks last week, Intel proclaimed its "Unwired" vision - that all mobile computer users can now stay connected no matter where they are. However, experts say that the dream of seamless hot spot roaming will stay a dream for some years to come. In reality, wireless LAN (WLAN) hot spots in many cities are a patchy network without a common billing system or access settings. "The biggest challenge is user convenience - how to make it make it easy for people to get ubiquitous access while having to deal with only one provider," said Robin Simpson, Gartner Australasia's research director for mobile and wireless. "Currently, business processes and interoperability agreements between different wireless hot spot providers are not defined." That users can't roam seamlessly between hot spots is a huge obstacle to the widespread adoption of mobile computing, one that stands between Intel and billions in unrealised revenue in the chips that power wireless computers. Intel is taking steps to make the dream come true. Earlier this month, the US chipmaking giant and the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) announced a plan to develop an interoperable, standards-based architecture to achieve automatic network switching and roaming. "There needs to be an identification and authentication technology on top of current access software which automatically detects account details and knows how to charge the usage back to the user's service provider," added Simpson. But coming up with standards is one thing. Getting them adopted is another, say experts. That the IDA-Intel alliance plan to pitch their plan to to industry bodies such as the GSM Association and Wi-Fi Alliance is only a start, they say. "Getting support from industry associations is crucial for this to take off," said Simpson. "The fact that Intel is a member of the Wi-Fi Alliance could help in business negotiations with these bodies and their affiliated WLAN vendors and aggregators." He felt it would definitely take more than a year before any effort towards an industry standard to bear fruit. The signs are not all bad. IT analysts Gartner projects a coming boom in WLAN hardware: 80 per cent of business laptops will have built-in Wi-Fi by by 2005, and 90 per cent of all notebooks will have this capability by 2007. On other technology fronts, some wireless hotspots providers in the US like iPass and Boingo Wireless have already attempted to tackle wireless roaming. But technical issues are not the only bump in the road to wireless nirvana. The other major - and some say larger - obstacle is the question of who gets paid. Brian McCann, senior manager of solution marketing for communications billings systems provider Portal Software agrees that back-end billing is a critical issue. "At present, there is no concerted industry push," said McCann. The effort put into thinking about business issues lags behind that put into solving technical problems, he felt. But perhaps the biggest step towards roaming nirvana might come from an event that will cause the most pain: A shakeout in the Wi-Fi access industry. Today, players of all sizes, ranging from traditional telcos and niche hotspots providers, are jumping onto the WLAN bandwagon. With profits thin on the ground, both experts warn of an impending bubble-burst. "Consolidation will continue to take place in the WLAN provision space and niche players will begin to realise that they cannot survive on mere access alone," stressed Portal Software's McCann. "Furthermore, most WLAN subscribers prefer a pay-as-you-go scheme and are not prepared to pay for annual subscriptions," he said. Gartner's Simpson added: "The wireless game is more for fixed-lined carriers and large Internet service providers as they have the existing customer base. It is extremely expensive for startups to get new subscribers." "WLAN is taking a while to take off and only bigger players can survive the two to three-year wait before the service becomes profitable," he added. Winston Chai writs for CNETAsia
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