English cricket tours can be hard work - and not just for the long-suffering fans glued to the radio back home. For months at a time, players and their coaches, physios, organisers and managers can be separated from their homes and families, in a foreign country and under match pressure. On average, five teams from England and Wales tour each year.
Keeping the touring sides in contact with their homes can be extremely expensive, with frequent phone calls from all over the globe at hotel prices. The tour operations managers also have to be in constant contact with their counterparts at Lords, keeping both sides up to date on players' health, itinerary changes, news and any problems or grievances. This year, the England and Wales County Cricket Board (ECB) will be trying out something a little different in an effort to slash the costs, while improving contact.
The ECB has for some time used laptops with Internet access to manage remote communications with touring sides. However, the teams have always had to either find local ISPs while in the countries they were visiting, or try dialling up international numbers from the hotels in which they were staying, which proved hideously expensive.
As a result, only a few members of the touring teams were given laptops, and there were frequent serious hiccups in the service. During the Ashes tour to Australia in 1998, for instance, the team used AOL, which had some problems at the time, resulting in "disasters communications-wise", according to Sean Scallan, IT manager at the ECB.
In the forthcoming tour to Sri Lanka, every member of the 25-strong squad will be issued with a laptop, and the team will use a remote Internet access service from iPass to avoid hassles with local ISPs. Among the services being tried out is videoconferencing, enabling managers to communicate with base and players to have better contact with their families. The technology has already been used in short pilots last year when sides were touring Pakistan and Kenya.
The iPass client, called iPass Connect, a small program of only 1.5Mbytes, was installed on every laptop, each of which was already supplied with a Web browser and portable modem. When the user opens up the client, he or she is asked to select from a pull-down menu the country in which they are using it. The software looks up a suitable local number from a list, and automatically inserts it into the dial-up path. All the user should have to do is put in a nine or zero to get an outside line from the hotel. Then the user opens the Web browser and proceeds as normal.
When setting up the service on the laptop, the user has to supply a password, but thereafter the system remembers it so there is no danger of the players losing it and having to seek technical support from the UK. The iPass software updates itself automatically each time it logs on to the Internet, in case any of the details of any of the ISPs on the database have changed.
IPass has agreements with 8,500 points of presence around the world, in more than 150 countries. In most of the places where the service operates, iPass holds agreements with several network providers, so that if one carrier has an outage, alternative network connections should be made available.
Ipass's Netserver software is installed at each ISP with whom it has an agreement. When the client dials up the local ISP, the user's name is prefixed with "iPass", so the call is routed through the server software. This in turn routes the connection to one of iPass's four datacentres: one on the west coast of the US; one on the east; one in London; and one in Sydney, Australia.
At these datacentres, the call seeks authentication, to ensure that the user is indeed registered with iPass. Once that authentication is given, the user has an Internet connection, secured by 128-bit SSL encryption.
Start and stop records for when users log on and off are also kept at the datacentres. The local ISPs have an agreement with iPass, through which they are paid per minute for the time iPass's customers spend online. IPass users pay a small amount for the client software - the ECB paid £5,000 for its tourers - and are billed for their time spent online by iPass, which charges a premium on top of the call rate negotiated with the ISP. That charge varies according to the charges of the local ISPs.
Scallan estimates that he will save more than 25% in connection costs for the Sri Lanka tour compared to previous tours.
As well as cutting costs, the new system should prove popular with users. One of the advanced services the ECB has been trying out is videoconferencing. On the recent Kenyan tour, the managers enjoyed a 45-minute videoconference with Lords from Nairobi. This capability should also prove popular with the rest of the squad for keeping in touch with their families. Phil Neill, operations manager, has satisfactorily tested the system on calls to his wife from Pakistan. When videoconferencing is rolled out to the whole squad, all Scallan needs to do is fit the laptops with a video camera and install Microsoft's Netmeeting on them.
A great plus for Scallan is the system's ease of use. With the service, players do not have to learn different client software and reconfigure their settings at each stop on the tour. "Before, it was a nightmare. I used to get a lot of support calls from Australia [on previous tours] from team members trying to connect to AOL - at 2am. It was very confusing for the chaps," he says.
Sometimes laptops came back from tours having had so many different pieces of client Internet access software installed that Scallan had to wipe the hard drives and set them up again.
The iPass service itself is hardly revolutionary, but it has taken some time to set up and to gather steam, as finding suitable ISPs across the world has been difficult outside the US and western Europe. The company expects remote access services to come into more widespread use as the need for Internet access increases, among travellers to developing countries in particular, where access can be tricky to set up and users may have concerns about reliability and security.
New datacentres are planned for the Asia Pacific area in the next three to six months. The company is also preparing to roll out broadband services in a few months and services to mobile phones.
Access to internal corporate systems is another growth area. The ECB is also trying out remote access for touring sides to its corporate intranet in the UK. Now in beta testing, the system is scheduled for complete roll-out by the end of the second quarter this year.
Although iPass is the largest such service in the world at present, the principle is simple and there seems little to stop enterprising competitors from catching up - which means more choice and more competitive pricing for users.
Fiona Harvey is former editor of PC Week and Internet World. She now writes for the Financial Times