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Boingo formed a roaming agreement with Monzoon Networks: The deal offers Boingo customers access to 266 hotspots in Switzerland. Locations include the Zurich airport, the Swiss International Airlines lounge in Geneva, conference centers, shops, restaurants, and all McDonald’s restaurants in Switzerland. Boingo now has almost 7,000 hotspots in Europe as part of its network.
Peter Judge at TechWorld reports that BT may be introducing a combined Wi-Fi/cellular service, but it’s not what you think: When customers make calls in their homes using a combined GSM/Wi-Fi phone, the call is carried over Wi-Fi between the phone and the access point. But the access point is backhauled over the GSM network. Instead of realizing the cost savings of carrying a call over IP over a broadband fixed connection, BT chooses to use the more expensive GSM network. The service becomes, in essence, a method for improving cell phone coverage in the home.
The idea doesn’t make sense in any context, but you might understand it if the offering was being made by a cell phone operator that stands to benefit by keeping calls on its network. But this is BT, which doesn’t have a cell phone network and will supply the cellular link via resale agreements with a mobile operator. It would make so much more sense for BT to backhaul the access points using its own wired network, using voice over IP and charging customers slightly reduced rates than the cell phone networks for the calls that use the system. That sounds like it could be a profitable service and would allow BT to beat out cellular operators that don’t own their own landline networks.
This service is basically an update to the previously announced Bluephone initiative and shouldn’t be available until 2006. Given the track record of the Bluephone plan, which was initially set to be introduced using Bluetooth instead of Wi-Fi in 2003, it might not be surprising if the whole plan changes again.
Orange France hotspot customers will be able to access hotspots that are part of the WeRoam footprint starting February 1: Customers will be billed for the use of WeRoam hotspots around the world on their Orange France bills. Orange France is also adding its hotspots to the WeRoom network.
I have talked to the folks at WeRoam before but I have to admit that sometimes I have a hard time understanding their total business. The company firstly seems to be one that allows GSM operators to offer their customers secure sign-on and billing for hotspot usage. But WeRoam also seems to be an aggregator of sorts, enabling new partners, like Orange France, to roam onto the networks of other WeRoam customers.
That puts WeRoam into a category with the likes of Boingo and iPass, although I’m not sure that WeRoam takes on individual end-users like Boingo does. This aggregator space will be interesting to watch as the Wi-Fi market matures. As hotspots consolidate under a handful of companies, it may become increasingly difficult for the aggregators to differentiate their services.
T-Systems, a Deutsche Telekom unit, is providing roaming to customers of hotspot operators that use T-Systems’ roaming solution at CeBit: CeBit is one of the largest trade shows in the world. Customers of T-Systems customers can log on using their regular login and be charged on their home account. Anyone can access the network by purchasing time online or buying a pre-paid card.
The hotspot apparently is huge and last year was used by 4,300 people. I’m not sure how helpful this will be to how many people because it’s hard to find a complete list of T-Systems’ roaming solution customers. T-Systems says it has 120 international partners but the few it lists are relatively small, such as Connexion by Boeing and Portugal Telecom.
While this announcement is a good thing and will certainly prove useful to a subset of users, it highlights how fragmented the hotspot market is. At least in the GSM world, most European customers would turn their phones on at a convention like CeBit and assume that they could use whatever network is available via a roaming deal their operator made. But the hotspot world is still so fragmented that you’re the exception rather than the rule if you happen to be able to access a hotspot through a roaming deal.
I’m definitely not alone in visiting a new city and struggling to find the local hotspots (see the Prague Unwired post): After a visit to Dublin back in November, before I moved here, I had a hard time finding hotspots and I posted an item about it. In response, a handful of kind Dubliners quickly emailed to point out local hotspots, some of which I hadn’t found on the usual online listings. Unfortunately, old-fashioned word of mouth still seems to be the best way to find out about hotspots.
This story needs a bit of a translation but I haven’t been able to dig up an official press release from O2: If I understand this properly, O2 is now offering a combined 3G/GPRS/Wi-Fi card and users can connect to The Cloud or BT hotspots.
O2 follows Vodafone and T-Mobile with the combined offering. I’m anxious to see how these combined services do. The prices still need to come down and users will want to access more hotspots than are available to them through their operator. But with a lower price and more hotspot access, this type of offering would be great.
This blogger admittedly is offering pure speculation, but it’s an interesting idea (scroll down to Jan. 14 entry): Apparently Vonage UK has appointed a new CEO whose name is not yet revealed. This blogger knows the chap and connecting the dots between the new CEO, the forthcoming Vonage Wi-Fi handset, and a leap into the future of combined GSM/Wi-Fi phones, he has drawn the conclusion that perhaps Vonage may be considering launching its own mobile virtual network operator. For those of you not familiar with the term, MVNO’s don’t own a cellular network but they buy air time from an operator and resell a branded service to end users. Vonage would be in a great position to try to sell cellular access to its existing customers, especially those who use the Wi-Fi handset and are already used to Vonage being a quasi-mobile operator.
In fact, a combined service from Vonage would be a very powerful offering that might make the existing cell phone and landline operators a bit nervous. Vonage customers could truly use a single handset both at home and out and about. At home, coverage wouldn’t be an issue like it is with cell phones in the house because users would attach to their Wi-Fi network, which presumably offers good coverage throughout their house. Once they leave the house, the cell network would take over, unless the user is in a hotspot that is compatible with the Vonage service. Vonage would own the relationship with the cell phone customer and it would be stealing voice minutes from the local incumbent. Even if the incumbent is offering the DSL that enables Vonage in the house, they will be offering a flat rate monthly access fee so they’d still be losing the voice minutes the customer would otherwise pay for on the phone.
Vonage would be positioned to beat anyone else to market with such a combined service. While some cellular devices that include Wi-Fi are being sold, few, if any, support voice over Wi-Fi. Some of the cell phone operators talk about combined services, but I suspect they’re too worried about canabalizing their cell networks that they’ll only launch the combined service as a last resort, namely to compete against the likes of a company like Vonage offering such a service.
Telebria, a mesh-network equipment developer, introduced a weatherproof access point. The tri-band AP offers outdoor coverage: Telebria has built a network covering schools and libraries in Kent in the U.K. but has also deployed more than 60 public networks in England.
Mesh and voice over Wi-Fi seem to be the hot topics for the upcoming year. Mesh is expected to be a particularly hot topic in Europe.
Ofcom, the U.K. spectrum regulatory department, and ComReg, Ireland’s spectrum regulator, are both working on trying to make their use of spectrum more efficient. ComReg is in the process of developing its plan for 2005 through 2007 and has some very interesting ideas. ComReg figures that Ireland is in a unique position geographically and the regulator been working on ways to use that as an advantage. Because the population in the country is relatively spread out and because it is an island, Ireland has lots of unused spectrum, compared to many of its European neighbors. Because Ireland doesn’t share borders with other countries (except Northern Ireland), it doesn’t have to coordinate with neighbors to make sure it isn’t interfering.
ComReg has an interesting idea for exploiting its spectrum-rich position. This year, it hopes to introduce a new regulatory framework that would allow companies—Irish or otherwise—to use spectrum here for research and development purposes. ComReg would go so far as to allow companies to introduce trial services to real end users who could actually pay for the service as a way for companies to test technologies in a real world environment.
Many regulatory bodies, including the Federal Communications Commission in the United States, have some sort of mechanism for allowing companies to use spectrum for tests. However, my understanding is that at least in the United States it’s not easy to get that approval and there are a lot of limits on using the spectrum if you’re given approval. ComReg’s plan is to be a bit more liberal with doling out trial spectrum and to allow companies from outside Ireland to come here in order to conduct their trials.
ComReg is definitely mindful of international guidelines as set by the international spectrum bodies, so it is not going to allow anything that would be in blatant disregard for European guidelines. It is also mindful of not wanting to promote services in spectrum that might be available in Ireland but not elsewhere, noting that it’s not economical to consider encouraging companies to build systems that would only suit the Irish market.
I went to a half-day conference this week where ComReg discussed this and other ideas for changing its spectrum policy with members of the wireless community here in Ireland. I found the idea of opening up spectrum for trialers to be a great idea and one that could not only draw innovative companies to Ireland but could also foster some exciting new wireless services in the future. But no one else seemed to be too excited about the idea. Perhaps I’m missing something—maybe ComReg has talked about this before but hasn’t actually done it. Or maybe there’s another reason that I’m missing for why members of the local wireless community wouldn’t be excited about this idea.
There was some mention of opening up more license-free spectrum, but it doesn’t seem that ComReg has any exciting plans there.
Both Ofcom and ComReg are talking about allowing spectrum trading. Opening up a secondary market for spectrum seems to be a hot topic in Europe these days. At the ComReg conference, Vodafone Ireland’s CEO was quite supportive of the idea, but other audience members were concerned about the affects. There wasn’t much discussion of how ComReg might regulate spectrum trading. In the United States, the FCC has taken measures to try to prevent speculators from buying spectrum at auction and then sitting on it while the value skyrockets. That’s not a good way to distribute spectrum as it can result in valuable spectrum not being used. I hope that Ofcom and ComReg are both considering ways to avoid such speculation.
This extensive round-up of voice over Wi-Fi activity offers a great basis for considering whether voice over Wi-Fi may present a threat to the mobile players: There are plenty of voice over Wi-Fi moves happening in Europe, including an O2 trial in April in the UK, a voice over Wi-Fi enabled mobile phone to come from BT, and Wi-Fi phones from Motorola and Nokia that will support voice over Wi-Fi.
As this article aptly notes, it’s the standalone mobile operators without any landline properties that might be feeling a bit threatened by the talk of voice over Wi-Fi. But as the author also notes, voice over Wi-Fi calling in the consumer market is unlikely to steal a major amount of traffic from the mobile networks, given that Wi-Fi networks have relatively small coverage areas.
Voice over Wi-Fi in offices, however, could make a more significant dent in the revenues that mobile operators earn, because high volumes of mobile phone calls are currently made by employees to colleagues in offices. In the U.S., where many companies have made or are making the switch to voice over IP, the next transition to voice over Wi-Fi seems logical. Such voice over Wi-Fi phones in offices could steal some traffic from the mobile networks. For some operators, that may not be significant, however. Vodafone, at least around here, has an offering that allows colleagues to talk to each other for free.
Research firm In-Stat believes that wireless voice over IP offers the greater market opportunity for voice over IP. In-Stat expects revenues for voice over IP chips to grow pretty dramatically through 2008, with the main driver being combined cellular and voice over Wi-Fi handsets. In-Stat doesn’t expect such combined devices to go mainstream in any significant way until 2006, though.
Bozii, a hotspot aggregator, says it now offers access to 3,500 hotspots in the UK: Networks that are part of the Bozii service include BT Openzone, Surf and Sip, and Net-Near-U, among others. Customers, who have several pricing options including £34.99 per month for unlimited access, can send an SMS to receive a message back about the nearest hotspot.
Bozii’s 3,500 hotspots compares with Boingo’s 4,200 locations in the UK. Boingo charges $21.95 for unlimited access, but many Boingo locations in the UK also charge $0.25 per minute in addition to the monthly fee.
It’s clear that the market is still trying to figure out the best way to approach customers. There are currently a wide variety of approaches, ranging from independent service providers, aggregators and something in between, i.e., The Cloud. The goal seems to be offering customers the most available hotspots as possible. While there are a few standouts, unfortunately, it’s still not possible to sign up for a single, reasonably priced subscription and be relatively assured that you’ll get access to every hotspot.
Vonage, which launched its service in the UK yesterday, will also probably introduce voice over Wi-Fi in the UK this summer: The launch of the wireless service is likely to coincide with the launch in the United States. Vonage said at the Consumer Electronics Show that it would introduce a UTStarcom Wi-Fi phone configured to offer Vonage’s voice over IP service.
I’m dubious about how useful consumers will find voice over Wi-Fi. The phones will be convenient in the home as a cordless phone, but Vonage customers can already use their existing cordless phones, which undoubtedly cost less than the voice over Wi-Fi phone. Otherwise, hotspots are usually far enough apart, that the phone certainly wouldn’t be useful as a way to be reached when away from home. Users would have to seek out hotspots to make phone calls on it.
There is also the issue of users being required to subscribe to each hotspot the phone may connect to as well as how users will be authenticated, as Glenn Fleishman notes at partner blog Wi-Fi Networking News.
This is a bit of a no-brainer, but IDC is saying that mesh networking will be the next step in Wi-Fi development: Motorola and Nortel are offering mesh solutions and IDC expects other major network vendors to follow suit.
As IDC notes, North America has already been building mesh networks, particularly to cover city centers. But interest is starting to grow in Europe. IDC’s research is backed up in a press release issued by Tropos which mainly just brags about Tropos deployments. But the announcement includes a statement from Esme Vos of MuniWireless noting that the site has seen a growing interest in municipal networks and that Tropos, which uses mesh technology, is a leader in deploying such networks.
An area of Italy as large as 220 square kilometers is being covered in Wi-Fi: The effort is part of an attempt to encourage locals of the area’s mountain towns to stay in the region, rather than move elsewhere.
Small towns around the globe are hoping that Wi-Fi or at least Internet access might convince people to stay. It’s already worked in Bardi, Italy where residents brought Internet access and turned a 16th-century theater into a multimedia center.
Even just a few days into the new year, it seems clear that voice over Wi-Fi is going to be the hot topic for the year: In Ireland, a number of startups are aggressively developing and offering voice over Wi-Fi services. Wireless Projects, which builds Wi-Fi networks in apartment complexes, plans to offer a voice over Wi-Fi offering this year.
Another Irish company, Cicero Networks, offers software for smart phones, PDAs, and laptops that allows users to make voice over Wi-Fi calls. Cicero is positioning its product as a way to offer landline operators an entrée into the mobile phone business, but clearly in a limited manner because coverage is limited to Wi-Fi hotspots.
An IDC study showed that the WLAN market in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa increased by 9.2 percent in the third quarter of 2004 compared to the second quarter: Over 1 million base station were shipped, mostly to the residential market. Siemens, Cisco, Netgear, and D-Link lead the market as vendors.
Airespace seems to be setting itself apart from the WLAN switch market, in Europe as well as the U.S. Revenue for the company increased and it now hold the top position in the wireless switch market, above Symbol.
O’Brien’s sandwich shops in Ireland will be part of the BT Openzone network: Initially, 24 stores around the country will get the access. This deal increases the number of Openzone hotspots in Ireland to over 170.