Though 802.11 hot spots have been springing up everywhere lately, their usefulness has been hampered, in part, by lack of interoperability between providers.
Different wireless providers, such as T-Mobile, Boingo and SBC Communications, establish hot spots. So a T-Mobile subscriber can have Wi-Fi with her latte, but a Boingo or SBC customer at the same Starbucks is out of luck. “Wireless users hate the idea of multiple providers,” says telecom industry analyst Jeff Kagan. “We have to get to a point where wireless service roams.”
The industry group Internet Protocol Detail Record Organization (IPDR) has developed specifications enabling users to roam between hot spots, regardless of the provider. IPDR also addresses billing issues for carriers. The specifications would enable a wireless provider to track and bill for usage, no matter which carrier’s hot spot the user is in, rather than the user needing to sign up for individual daily or monthly accounts.
“Aggregators have tried to address this issue already, but there still isn’t an open, network,” says Pankaj Patel, an IPDR director and senior consultant with Convergys. The IPDR standards attempt to address this issue, but before roaming becomes a reality, carriers have to sign on.
One carrier already offering roaming is Wayport. According to Dan Lowden, Wayport’s VP of Marketing, any carrier that signs a partnership agreement can offer service through Wayport’s hot spots, which number over 3,000. Nine major wireless carriers, including SBC, Verizon and Sprint PCS have signed the agreements under which the carrier pays a wholesale fee when a customer accesses the Wayport network (meaning the user could pay a higher fee to the provider or retail establishment).
However, Patel and Kagan question if customers will continue to agree to costly pay-as-you-go fees. Wireless users would rather pay
a flat fee.
But there’s no reason for carriers to enact roaming now, Kagan says, because demand is so high for wireless services. But he expects the pendulum to swing in the next 18 months. “Soon, we’re going to have wireless everywhere,” says Kagan, predicting that the national availability of high-speed wireless will force providers into roaming agreements.•
—Phillip J. Britt