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February 8, 2005

The Bitbuzz of Ireland

By Nancy Gohring

Alex French, director of operations for Irish hotspot operator Bitbuzz, must have been pleased at an accidental exchange that occurred while we sat in a Bitbuzz hotspot. As the server from the bar set down my tea, he noticed that I had connected to the hotspot and was looking at the sign-on page. Unprovoked, he advised us that if we went upstairs, into the hotel, we’d get a cheaper rate than in the restaurant. He also told us how to pay for the access.

After many experiences over the past couple years receiving blank stares when asking servers or baristas about Wi-Fi access in venues that I know offer it, I was pleasantly surprised to hear such detail, especially unsolicited.

French wasn’t. Bitbuzz is “fanatical” about doing staff training at its hotspot locations, he said. Before the launch of each hotspot, Bitbuzz coordinates a training session, either during a training that may have already been previously scheduled by the venue or when the staff is doing a shift change.

The training is one of a handful of services that Bitbuzz undertakes to set it apart from its competitors, a significant task given that Bitbuzz is an independent company competing against O2, Eircom, and Esat BT, the incumbent operators in Ireland.

Bitbuzz may also set itself apart by attracting customers from a wider base of users. It hasn’t yet officially announced it, but Bitbuzz has signed inbound roaming deals with the Boingo and iPass networks so may soon begin attracting customers of those aggregators. Bitbuzz is still working on the implementations on the backend.

Attracting roaming customers from other networks is key to Bitbuzz’s strategy, French said. “We see ourselves in the long term as more of a wholesale player. We don’t want to compete with O2 to attract users from a marketing perspective,” he said. “We don’t have the marketing budgets that they do.”

Bitbuzz fully installs and pays for the access points, asking each location to commit to buying a certain amount of usage time from Bitbuzz each month. The venue may choose to give the access away to its customers or charge them whatever fee they see fit.

Because Bitbuzz is smaller than its competitors and because Wi-Fi is all it does, it can offer a better service to venues compared to its competitors, French said. “For all the others, [Wi-Fi] is a rounding error,” he said. Because it’s small, Bitbuzz can add features and respond to customer needs quickly and easily, he said. For example, one venue didn’t want to offer the standard 24-hour access option and Bitbuzz was able to easily arrange to enable a 12-hour access period.

In addition, Bitbuzz will brand the service for a venue. “We are less concerned about forcing our brand and product on a hotel,” he said. Venues have the flexibility to set their own prices. That compares to some of the larger hotspot operators who may more prominently display their brands and control the pricing structures.

The disadvantage to being the small, local option is that Bitbuzz is a new face, French admits. Eircom, for example, could sell Wi-Fi access to venues as an up sell to a venue’s existing voice services. Eircom already has a foot in the door through its voice telephony service to customers.

But Bitbuzz may have another advantage as an independent player. Forming roaming agreements could be easier. “In a small market like Ireland with a small number of players, there are a lot of long standing rivalries,” he notes. “So if you have two mobile phone rivals who don’t roam for voice traffic, it’s a big psychological leap to roam for Wi-Fi.”

French suspects that Bitbuzz may be the only hotspot operator in the market to have reached out to companies like Boingo and iPass in hopes of forming roaming agreements. “For us it’s about carrying traffic, not about marketing to users,” said French.

In the upcoming year, one of the biggest questions in the Irish hotspot market will be if any of the international hotspot providers enter the market, French said. “It’s going to be the real question for the year. And if they do, will they do it with an existing player, or on their own?”

Posted by nancyg at February 8, 2005 7:23 PM


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