Bell tests WiFi demand with hot spot pilots

TORONTO — Bucking conventional wisdom, Bell Canada is determined to prove that there is such a thing as a free lunch, or at least wireless internet.

Canada’s incumbent carrier Tuesday launched its public access WiFi hot spot pilot project. WiFi is short for wireless fidelity, a term commonly
Over the pilot project period, which is scheduled to run until the spring of 2003, users of 802.11b-enabled laptops or handheld devices will be able to get access to wireless Internet for free. Bell executives said that, together with several other spots, AccessZone sites will be present in Toronto’s Union Station, Montreal’s Central Station, the Dorval International Airport in Montreal, as well as all Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge locations.used to describe the 802.11 standard. As part of the Bell AccessZone pilot, the company will convert a number of payphones in Toronto and Montreal into wireless Internet access points. The company will also install a number of access points where payphones are not present.

Bell Ontario president Terry Mosey said the company decided to enter the public access point market in response to customer demand. The highly mobile work force of Bell’s enterprise customers have gotten used to accessing wireless Internet, thanks to corporate WLAN installations Bell has introduced, he said. Now those workers are increasingly looking for access as they travel, in airports and train stations as well as other high traffic areas.

The pilot project is an information-gathering exercise, said Bell Canada cabling and wireless LAN business unit general manager Kerry Eberwein. The company will be keeping track of who uses their access spots and in what way.

This also sheds light on why the service will initially be free; the company simply doesn’t know what it should charge.

“”Over the pilot time we will be looking at various pricing models and will be using that time to work those models out,”” Eberwein said.

Bell Canada is not the only service provider on the WiFi market wondering about price, said IDC Canada senior telecommunications analyst Warren Chaisatien.

“”Frankly speaking, nobody has a good idea as to how to offer this and how to price this in a profitable way,”” he said.

The pricing model is still largely a mystery because not enough data exists about the way people are using wireless Internet, he said. Information may scarce because the demand doesn’t really exist yet: Canada in particular is lagging behind Europe and the United States in terms of deployment, Chaisatien said.

Bell’s announcement today follows Telus’ entry into the market two weeks ago, albeit through a different door. Telus Ventures made a $6 million commitment to Toronto-based Spotnik Mobile to aid them in the build out of a national public access WiFi network.

Spotnik’s network will function in a way different from Bell’s in that they’re taking a neutral host approach, Spotnik co-CEO Mark Wolinsky said. The company will build the network and support it while other carriers — telcos like Telus as well as ISPs — will re-sell the service to their customer base.

Spotnik said he expects to install over 200 public access zones in the Greater Toronto Area over the next 18 months, Wolinsky said. They will be located in hotels, conference facilities, hotels and transportation facilities.

“”We’re been providing the service in a number of locations in Toronto over the last 12 months, testing the service. Our platform is already been built out, our pilots are now well completed and we’re rolling out commercial service,”” Wolinsky said.

Telus’ market entry through partnership is an example of the type of cautious behaviour seen all over the battered Canadian telecommunications industry, Chaisatien said. The company is obviously interested in the market, but not sure enough of the demand and profits to build out a network of their own, instead preferring to fund a smaller company.

“”(They’re saying) ‘Ok, I believe in it but I’m not doing it,'”” Chaisatien explained. “”‘You go out and explore the market, I’ll give you five million bucks. If it works, well maybe in the future I can acquire you.'””

He said the caution shown by both Bell’s pilot project and Telus’ indirect entry is a smart move because although demand for anywhere anytime wireless access is slowly growing, the emphasis has to be on the word “”slowly.””

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