Rogers Wireless Inc. is one step closer to launching a national Wi-Fi service by choosing Azaire Networks to automate the billing process.

Using Azaire’s

platform, customers who are already served by Rogers’ cellular service can add a Wi-Fi plan to the same bill.

“”It allows us to re-use our 32 million record per day billing system with all of its power and flexibility,”” said David Robinson, vice-president of business development for Rogers Wireless.

“”These systems are very large, very powerful, critical systems to a cellular company. If you don’t have to touch them much, this is a huge advantage. This Azaire platform allows us to offer Wi-Fi as a feature to our existing customers with minimal impact on these very important systems.””

Customers will be able to walk into any hotspot with their mobile device and sign up for the Rogers service right away, said Naveen Dhar, vice-president of sales and marketing for Santa Clara, Calif.-based Azaire Networks Inc. “”It’s very easy for the user. They can try it out, they can try the plan and see it works. If they like it, they can continue using it. It’s fairly seamless authentication and provisioning for the existing (cellular) subscribers.””

The Azaire platform will also handle the authentication for customers after they signed up. They sign on to the Wi-Fi network with a user name and password and the system will determine if they have prepaid for the time they use or need to be billed for additional time.

The platform is flexible enough for Rogers to add a subscriber identity module (SIM) component in the future, said Robinson. SIM cards often reside in GSM phones and store data about the user which can be used to identity and authenticate them without a separate login. it can also be used to encrypt data transmissions.

Rogers has not as yet announced when it will begin to offer Wi-Fi service to customers. Testing for the service is under way, said Robinson, and deals are being hammered out with retailers to offer the hotspots. The service will be available in metropolitan areas across the country, he added.

To date, Bell Canada and Telus Mobility are the only two national carriers to offer Wi-Fi service. Bell was the first to market, operating hotspots under the AccessZone brand. Telus recently bought out the portions of hotspot provider Spotnik Mobile that it did not already own.

In March, all four major Canadian carriers announced an interoperability agreement that would allow customers to roam freely between hotspots. Each carrier would handle their own billing, but to the customer it wouldn’t matter which hotspot they used to access the Internet.

The agreement was essential to all carriers to provide a feasible business model for consumer Wi-Fi access, said Robinson.

According to Bell Canada spokesperson Nessa Prendergast, the company is working on its own Wi-Fi billing system which could be integrated into existing cellular customers’ bills. Bell does not currently charge for Wi-Fi access. Any customer fees are paid directly to the owner of the hotspot location. “”The business model for all this is still being worked out,”” said Prendergast.

Canada has been slow in coming up with comprehensive Wi-Fi coverage compared to the U.S., said Wai Sing Lee, wireless analyst with Toronto-based Frost & Sullivan.

“”It’s amazing how carriers up here are so conservative. Everyone in the States and around the world are rushing over themselves just to get this done,”” he said.

Lee prepared a Wi-Fi report last year and concluded that the revenue opportunities for the carriers may be limited — at least at first. Many consumers may not be willing to pay for a Wi-Fi service since there are hotspots that are available for free.

“”Usually they’re saying, ‘I hope my boss pays for this’ when they’re on a business trip,”” said Lee.

Robinson acknowledged that Wi-Fi is an incremental business. “”We look at Wi-Fi as an interesting new feature that we can offer our cellular customers,”” he said. “”We’re not saying that the public commercial hotspot business is necessarily a glamorous . . . business. If you look historically at most of the operators that have tried to get into this as a standalone business, there’s a lot of carnage out there.””

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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