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The adoption of wireless Lans and the use of public Wi-Fi hotspots is increasing, but suppliers still need to sort out...

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The adoption of wireless Lans and the use of public Wi-Fi hotspots is increasing, but suppliers still need to sort out compatibility and billing issues. Antony Savvas reports




More than one-third of the UK public are said to know what Wi-Fi networks are and what a wireless hotspot is. Hotels, airports, coffee shops and even burger bars have adopted the wireless broadband access technology.

Analyst firm IDC predicts a rise in UK public hotspot usage from 75,000 people in 2003 to more than 930,000 people in 2005. The number of public hotspots in the UK has increased from about 4,200 in 2003 to an estimated 7,800 in 2004. This excludes the corporate, campus and home wireless access points connected to wireless Lans.

More people are expected to have wireless connectivity, fuelled by price cuts in access charges by the leading providers of public hotspots. BT recently cut the overall access price of its BT Openzone service.

Since it launched Openzone two years ago BT has set up 4,000 wireless hotspots across the UK. To attract more users, it is charging £25 a month for 4,000 minutes of access time to customers who sign a 12-month contract. Previously, users would pay from £10 for 120 minutes to £40 for 900 minutes online.

DMSL, which provides broadband network products for Wi-Fi integration, welcomes the price cuts. Managing director John Carter says, "A quiet revolution is taking place in the business world, with more users starting to investigate and make use of wireless hotspots. The number of users with wireless laptop capability is growing by the day and more are starting to experiment with it. These price cuts will encourage more people to start using the technology, leading to further opportunities for businesses providing hotspots."

One key factor for hotspot growth is the integration of networks with those run by the mobile operators. The advent of GPRS and 3G means that users can, theoretically, enjoy internet access regardless of their location.

At the end of last year Orange and Vodafone agreed with BT to give their mobile users access to BT's Openzone wireless hotspots. Instead of getting access speeds of between 20kbps and 380kbps on a mobile network, users would be able to get Wi-Fi access at up to 11mbps. The extra bandwidth would be important for corporate users who needed low-latency Wi-Fi networks to access data-heavy applications such as SAP.

Access to wireless hotspots usually requires users to subscribe to the relevant provider, although the new agreements should have removed this barrier, allowing users to roam between mobile and Wi-Fi networks. But Computer Weekly has learned that almost a year on from the agreements, such mobile working is no nearer to being available. Orange and Vodafone confirmed they are still in discussion with BT about the integration, but say no access dates had been set.

One reason for the delay is the lack of a ready solution for integrated billing. The Wi-Fi industry charges users by the minute online, whereas mobile networks charge by the kilobit downloaded or sent.

T-Mobile launched its 3G datacard after Vodafone and Orange this year and said Wi-Fi integration would only work at the 500 T-Mobile hotspots, which include the Starbucks coffee shop chain. With T-Mobile, the billing complication is overcome as those on the 3G tariff pay a flat fee of £70 a month for all data, whether over a mobile or a Wi-Fi network. Authentication is via a username and password and users have to use a separate Wi-Fi card or Intel's Centrino technology.

Hotspot network provider The Cloud sees mobile Sim card authentication as the easy way to allow mobile network users secure access to hotspots and has put the infrastructure in place at its back-end to enable unified billing. However, in the UK providers prefer username and password access, which can be passed on or copied.

Ken Greene, European technical director at iPass, which supplies remote authentication technology, confirms the difficulties in providing an integrated solution. "The typical e-mail and VPN applications found on corporate laptops would not cope well with the delays in handing over data between networks and the different network characteristics of each technology. Roaming between networks requires a separate authentication and charge for each connection for billing purposes." And Greene says IT managers will first need a consistent billing unit to manage costs and improve user education if integration is to work.

Easy adoption is essential if Wi-Fi is to be fully accepted inside enterprise networks. IDC analyst Abner Germanow says, "Enterprise wireless Lans need to be easily integrated with wired networks to keep operational costs low. IT managers need to consider how they fit into the technical tasks of managing security protocols and device configuration, as well as the business burdens of managing multiple suppliers," he says.

Organisations can implement Wi-Fi themselves or bring in a managed service provider. Angelo Lamme, 3Com international product marketing manager for wireless and security, says, "If a customer is a train operator, the primary business model for the company is to sell as many tickets as possible. It would be better off buying wireless as a managed service so it does not have to worry about implementation, maintenance and security."

But an enterprise might want to deploy hotspots as a service to visitors, and it may see this as an extension to its existing network, in which case it would want to deploy and manage the technology itself, says Lamme.

Wi-Fi take-up

  • 35% of companies are using wireless Lans
  • 34% are evaluating or rolling out wireless Lans
  • 67% of those using Wi-Fi are doing so to provide remote or flexible working
  • 21% use or will use Wi-Fi for delivering VoIP.

This article is part of Computer Weekly's Special Report on wireless mobility IT produced in association with Intel

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