Time is right for public WLANs: Bell Canada

TORONTO — Taking advantage of its existing pay phone infrastructure, Bell Canada plans to create a national public access network based on the 802.11b wireless LAN standard.

As part of the Bell AccessZone pilot, the company will convert a number of payphones in Toronto and Montréal

into wireless Internet access points, or “”hotspots.””

The telecommunications giant has partnered with Intel of Canada and Cisco Systems Inc. and will be piloting a total of seven AccessZones over the next three months, giving users a free opportunity to connect wirelessly via their own 802.11b-enabled device to Bell’s high-speed Internet service.

“”We’ll be collecting data over the next three months to get a sense of what our customer’s perception is,”” says Kerry Eberwein, general manager of Bell’s cabling and wireless LAN business unit in Ottawa. Bell will also install a number of access points where payphones are not present.

“”This project will help Bell to better understand what its enterprise customers want and need,”” says Terry Mosey, president of Bell Ontario. “”Our enterprise customers will define this demand.””

Defining the demand includes figuring out what to charge for the service. Eberwein says the company would consider its pricing models after the pilot ends in the spring.

“”It is important to do this right now, but I also think the market needs education,”” says Warren Chaisatien, research analyst for IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto.

During the pilot, Bell will develop pricing based on how often the service is used, where it’s used and what user technical requirements are, he says.

Bell Canada is not the only service provider on the Wi-Fi market wondering about price.

“”Nobody has a good idea as to how to offer this (Wi-Fi service) and how to price this in a profitable way,”” says Chaisatien.

Bell’s announcement follows Telus’s entry into the market in late November, albeit through a different door.

Telus Ventures made a $6-million commitment to Toronto-based Spotnik Mobile to help build out a national public access WiFi network.

Spotnik’s network will take a neutral host approach, Spotnik co-CEO Mark Wolinsky says.

The company will build the network and support it while other carriers — telcos such as Telus as well as ISPs — will resell the service to their customer base. He says the company’s pilots are complete and commercial service is ready to roll out.

Meanwhile, the three Bell AccessZone terminals in Toronto’s Union Station can each support up to 30 users at one time at connection speeds up to 11 Mbps.

In terms of security, Chaisatien says it’s like beauty: it’s in the eye of the beholder. “”As long as you’re on your corporate VPN (virtual private network), you’re O.K.

“”But if you’re not . . . no one can guarantee during your time online it’ll be secure,”” he says.

— with files from Monica Rola

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