BT deal brings wireless roaming a step closer

Wireless roaming has come a step closer with an agreement between BT's Openzone wireless hotspot service and mobile operators...

Wireless roaming has come a step closer with an agreement between BT's Openzone wireless hotspot service and mobile operators Vodafone and Orange.

The move paves the way for users to connect to the internet or corporate networks via wireless hotspots run by different companies and receive a single bill for mobile data access.

Wireless hotspots, such as those in Starbucks coffee shops, allow mobile users to connect to an 802.11 wireless Lan. But, until now, users have needed to subscribe to a wireless hotspot service to use them. The agreements with BT Openzone will eventually enable Orange and Vodafone users to roam between wireless networks.

However, there are several barriers that need to be overcome before wireless roaming is as easy as international roaming on mobile phone networks.

Clive Longbottom, an analyst with research firm Quocirca, said, "It is a good move that means we will not end up with more operators with their own infrastructures.

"On the negative side, we are still a long way from true wide-ranging roaming, where devices automatically switch between the best connection available in a given area and bill for it."

Longbottom said telcos are struggling to come up with a business model for wireless roaming. On their voice networks, roaming is relatively straightforward because there is one channel and calls are measured by duration. But with data, duration of the call and data volumes (in terms of bytes transmitted) cannot easily be consolidated.

Julian Hewitt, an analyst with Ovum, said Vodafone was positioning itself for an expected rise in the use of public wireless Lans.

"It is of benefit to the user in that such deals mean more places to get wireless coverage for more people. It would be nice to think integrated billing will be another benefit but this is an incredibly hard thing to achieve and I would not expect that for at least 12 months," he said.

Vodafone said it would provide hotspot access from early next year, and Orange has announced trials for corporate customers including Hilton and Cadbury Schweppes to access wireless Lan, GPRS and High-Speed Circuit Switched Data services.

This year BT Openzone has implemented hundreds of hotspots around the UK in motorway service stations, airports, conference centres, hotels and cafes.

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