Carriers move ahead with Wi-Fi interoperability

Fourteen months after a joint initiative to interoperate carrier Wi-Fi hotspots across the country was announced, the Canadian Wireless Telecommunication Association (CWTA) and national wireless service providers Wednesday launched a nation-wide

rollout of North America’s broadest Wi-Fi hotspot network.

The network, which consists of over 500 carrier-run hotspots already operating in coffee shops, restaurants and airports across Canada, allows Internet users to roam freely from one carrier hotspot to another under a common hotspot identifier. Carriers include Bell Mobility, Fido/Rogers Wireless and Telus Mobility. CWTA plans to add an additional 500 hotspots — which can be viewed at — in the next few months. Pricing details vary from carrier to carrier.

“We all recognized that our existing client bases wanted to utilize and get billed for their services on their accounts,” said Telus director of business and enterprise solutions Chris Langdon. “We recognize from a technical and support perspective, clients weren’t at all interested in using additional third party software or clients to manage their connections into the network. They wanted to utilize their existing Internet browser and be able to securely authenticate against the account they have with their operator already.”

If a Bell customer is on another carrier’s hotspot, for example, it’s as if they were on their home carrier, said Peter Barnes, CWTA president and CEO.

“The whole idea is to have the customer transaction be simple,” said Barnes. “To do that, the back office has to be somewhat more complex.”

If it’s a Bell site, for instance, it has to recognize a Telus customer and go into the system, pull out the data required such as minutes of use and PIN number and send that information to Telus so it can bill the customer, explained Barnes.

Wireless billing systems, however, are more complex because, unlike a wired phone, there is more than one location, he added.

Leading up to Wednesday’s launch, carriers made modifications to their existing systems to ensure interoperability and a central repository for data was created. All carriers have also standardized wireless services on 802.11b/g standards to allow users’ information to remain secure when signing on.

While carriers and CWTA are touting the announcement as a means to further the popularity of Wi-Fi through such benefits as ease of access and simple payment options like credit cards, Seaboard Group analyst Brian Sharwood said wireless is a small part of carriers’ overall revenue.

“There are groups within these companies that are somewhat afraid of Wi-Fi because it eats into their other revenue,” said Sharwood. “I don’t think anybody thinks they’re going to get massive amounts of money flowing from Wi-Fi.”

But Sharwood said Wednesday’s launch is missing a wireless networking service similar to those offered by iPass and Boingo in the U.S. iPass allows its customers, mostly traveling business people, to remotely access corporate networks via dial-up, Ethernet and more recently wireless connections.

“(iPass) essentially allows global users into the same system,” said Sharwood. “Many of the current hotspots (in the U.S.) already have iPass in them.”

Sharwood added iPass can also be included in some of individual hotspots, allowing customers to log in and have the session billed to their cell phone account.

Since the original announcement in March 2004, Langdon said Telus looked at models like iPass but decided against them. “Client’s having to manage a connection manager of sorts wasn’t probably the simplest user experience,” he said. “We felt the security model we put in place integrated with our existing network’s level of security that we provide for all of our other services.”

Subsequent phases of the initiative, however, will be to interconnect into large pooling and aggregators nationally and internationally, Langdon added.

Despite the agreement, Barnes says the Wi-Fi market will remain competitive. “The carriers are still going to be competing with each other to get access to hotspots,” he said.

If there’s a coffee chain that doesn’t have a hotspot, for example, all of the carriers will be trying to sign that chain up. Once the spot is signed up under a primary carrier, the inter-carrier availability will become available to the customer.

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