Why Wi-Fi hotspot operators haven't done roaming properly

Interoute and others address an immature market...

Interoute and others address an immature market...

Roaming between public hotspots is crucial to the development of the Wi-Fi market in Europe but agreements are far less advanced than those between mobile operators in different countries. Wi-Fi networks, based on the 802.11b networking standard, allow wireless broadband in places such as cafes, hotels and airports with a range of about 300 feet from access points. Although providers such as BT Openzone and Eurospot-Swisscom, previously Megabeam, are rapidly expanding the areas they serve, few operators will have comprehensive coverage - necessitating roaming agreements. However, the latest research from BWCS shows only 12 of the largest 26 operators worldwide have roaming agreements in place - and none of those can be classified as commercial agreements. Peter Kingsland, BWCS consultant, said: "At the moment, some of the bigger hotspot operators such as Telia and BT are doing roaming but no money changes hands. It's a footprint expanding exercise." He said that now there isn't enough roaming traffic to justify outsourcing settlement operations to the usual external clearing houses which have years of experience with voice billing. However, others see the current state of play as an opportunity. Pan-European telecoms provider Interoute today announced an 802.11 roaming exchange. Nick McMenemy, Interoute marketing director, said: "A lot of companies are competing for the marquee sites but there are roaming conflicts. One may have an agreement with Costa Coffee, another with Starbucks. We're neutral and offer services based on our billing engine and presence in most European centres." Proxy authentication software determines whether users have a right to roam in a location and Interoute handles how many cents per minute the operator with whom the user has a relationship with receives. Interoute expects business to pick up further as hotspots move to the faster 802.11g standard, which needs more than a DSL connection to premises. The company offers connections over faster fibre, which will be more suited to the theoretical 54Mbps 802.11g offers. BWCS' Kingsland is sceptical about roaming brokers, including companies such as GRIC and iPass. "Everyone's looking at who to roam with and the [big] telcos want other telcos," he said. He reckons most Wi-Fi providers will keep handling roaming in-house for some time.