Canadian carriers converge for WiFi interoperability

Canadian carriers are temporarily putting their rivalries aside for a rare collaboration to develop standards that could help grow the emerging wireless market.

Bell Mobility, Telus Mobility, Microcell Solutions and Rogers AT&T Wireless Thursday said they had reached an inter-carrier

agreement to establish interoperability in public areas where users tap into networks using the wireless fidelity, or WiFi, standard. The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA), which facilitated the agreement, said the carrier quartet would likely have standards developed by the end of this year, allowing seamless roaming by early 2004. The CWTA called the agreement a North American first. Though a similar agreement was signed by carriers in France six weeks ago, nothing comparable has happened yet in the United States.

“”It’s a matter of months — I don’t think it’s a matter of weeks,”” said CWTA president Peter Barnes in Ottawa. “”Some work has obviously started.””

Barnes said the need for an accepted WiFi standard became evident last winter, when Intel launched its Centrino mobile processor and many carriers began installing access points to allow WiFi connectivity. Dubbed hotspots, these areas require users to connect to a specific carrier’s network. Interoperability, Barnes said, would much the technology much more pervasive, and therefore used more often.

David Robinson, vice-president of business and development at Rogers AT&T Wireless in Toronto, said it’s not a matter of creating new standards as adopting one. He likened the situation to the cell phone world, where CDMA carriers exchange roaming records using CIBER, while GSM carriers often use TAP.

“”It becomes a bad thing for everyone,”” he said. “”WiFi without roaming is a very difficult business case.””

The inter-carrier agreement is only the first step, Robinson said. Even once they agree on a standard, the carriers may have to put funds aside to make changes to billing and operating systems.

This is not the first time Canada’s four national carriers have worked together on the standards front. In 2001, they collaborated to provide interoperable short message service (SMS) across Canada. That moment of “”co-opetition”” may ease the process this time around, Barnes said.

“”We are building a track record, and an industry culture where we’re recognizing very quickly there is a benefit to the customer and the marketplace if we work together,”” he said.

Almis Ledas, vice-president or corporate development at Bell Mobility, agreed.

“”I think Canadian carriers are accustomed to dealing with scale issues that allow us to realize we can’t deal with some things on our own,”” he said. “”We have to line up and pool our demand.””

Robinson pointed out, however, that SMS interoperability was already common in Europe when North American companies finally started their discussions.

“”We had the rest of the world to look at — in this case, roaming for WiFi is in its infancy,”” he said. “”There’s nothing like this in the world.””

The WiFi market may eventually resemble parking lots, Ledas added, where users have free space at home or work but are willing to pay for assess in public areas depending on location and convenience. Standards, he added, will be necessary to ensure that WiFi doesn’t suffer from the kind of backlash the IT industry has faced before.

“”I think what we’re seeing now is a microcosm of the dot-com bubble,”” he said. “”There was a rush to enter and a sense that people are going to make money. We were starting to see that this was unsustainable.””

Barnes said the group’s WiFi standards may launch with a branding program that will reassure customers using various products that they interoperate.

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