Rogers to bundle Wi-Fi hotspot access with cell plans

TORONTO – Rogers Wireless Inc., which announced its EDGE high-speed data service Tuesday, plans to bundle Wireless Fidelity (Wi-Fi) hotspot access with its personal communications service (PCS) rate plans.

The Toronto-based carrier

has not announced pricing plan for the bundles, nor has it set a launch date, but it’s unlikely it will be available before 2005, said David Robinson, Rogers Wireless’ vice-president of business development.

Combining Wi-Fi with its general packet radio services (GPRS) and Enhanced Data Rates for GPRS Evolution (EDGE) would allow Rogers to offer “”3G-like services,”” Robinson said during a keynote address at the Wireless & Mobile WorldExpo, held Wednesday and Thursday at the National Trade Center.

He was referring to third-generation cellular services, which are supposed to allow transfer rates of 2 Megabits per second (Mbps) to fixed locations and 384 Kilobits per second (Kbps) to mobile users.

EDGE allows data transfer rates of up to 200 Kilobits per second (Kbps), about three to four times the speed of GPRS, which is comparable to dial-up Internet service.

Wi-Fi hot spots, which connect access points to wireless PC cards using IEEE 802.11 standards, are available in public places such as coffee shops, airport terminals, train stations and hotels. They typically let users connect to the Internet at speeds of 1 Megabit per second (Mbps) or better.

But the range of 802.11 is limited to 100 metres. As a result, customers who want network access outside of hotspots need a wireless plan such as Rogers’ EDGE, GPRS (available in Canada from Rogers and Microcell Telecommunications) or 1XRTT (available in Canada from Telus Mobility and Bell Mobility).

But mobile workers who want to use Wi-Fi hot spots typically have to sign up for a given period of time with the individual operator and pay through their credit cards.

Robinson said Rogers wants to let customers sign up for Wi-Fi access from hot spots operated by its partners as part of a PCS plan, meaning they would not have to pay hotspot operators separately.

Wai-Sing Lee, an industry analyst for Frost & Sullivan Canada, said a bundled package would discourage subscribers from canceling their Rogers PCS plans and signing up with rival carriers.

“”It does make sense for them to bundle everything, because you basically lock in the customer and there’s less chance of the customer straying if they find a better service elsewhere.””

But he added a recent Frost & Sullivan online survey of U.S. customers indicated most would rather pay for Wi-Fi service separately.

“”I’m just really curious as to how much more a person will have to pay for this,”” he said. “”I’d love to know what their footprint’s going to be, what their pricing’s going to be like and how convenient it’s going to be. There are a lot of unknowns here.””

Robinson said Rogers is not disclosing details like pricing yet.

Last March, Rogers signed a co-branding agreement with Bell Mobility, Microcell, Telus Mobility, which would allow all four carriers’ customers to access hotspots operated by all carriers or their partners. For example, Rogers customers would be able to access a Bell Mobility hotspots as if they were accessing Rogers hotspots. The carriers plan to allow subscribers to roam this fall.

Allan Rosenhek, Telus Mobility’s director of business development, said his company “”will likely”” offer a bundled Wi-Fi and PCS service.

Robinson said during the next six months, Rogers will work on resolving the technical issues involved in both the Wi-Fi networks and the back-end billing services.

Wi-Fi service is a “”best efforts”” technology normally used by workers with above-average technical knowledge, Robinson said, noting the 802.11 standard was originally designed for wireless local-area networks, rather than public access.

“”It was designed to extend (the range of) your blue (Ethernet) cable by 300 feet,”” he said. “”It was never intended for my computer to plug into someone else’s network and to do it securely.””

During his keynote address, he suggested Rogers would soon charge more for handsets. Carriers typically subsidize customers’ handsets, reselling them to customers at a loss of $100 or more per unit.

This means if 1.5 million customers sign up or buy new handsets this year, Rogers profit drops by $150 million.

“”The faster we can run away from this (business model), the faster we add $150 million to the bottom line,”” Robinson said.

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