Wireless Broadband roaming access, where Internet connectivity on a laptop roams and switches networks as a person moves around, could prove a great boon to business travelers and ISPs alike. Roaming access is a strategic vision promoted by several Internet provisioners, standards bodies, even the airlines and airports. But a cooling economy and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have left any meaningful deployment years away from completion
Maybe roaming access was another overly hopeful outgrowth of the late-1990s boom years, when a variety of tech sector players began preaching the vision of seamless Internet connectivity when traveling. In the not too distant future, the sermon went, business travelers would move from airport to plane to business-class hotel without any significant downtime. Perhaps not Internet everywhere, but the service would at least be in those places that routinely hand out free copies of USA Today.
But then came the tech recession, September 11 and mass jitters about travel in general. As airlines file for bankruptcy and airport authorities refocus attention on security matters, a truly ”end-to-end” broadband travel experience is years away.
In the meantime, road warriors from Singapore to Chicago will endure the frustrations of keeping laptops connected to the office while traveling internationally. Electrical plugs and currents differ from country to country, while phone jack standards remain a global hodgepodge requiring dozens of different adapters. So no one wants to add the aggravation of massive long-distance charges by dialing his hometown Internet access number, which now happens to be on the wrong side of the ocean. And always-on connectivity, wired or wireless, is still largely a desert dotted with only a handful of broadband oases.
The best answer to these problems remains Internet roaming access, or the ability to conduct international business almost anywhere in the world through a combination of dial-up and broadband. This concept is possible through worldwide alliances of ISPs and telecom companies, who agree to share local POPs and handle traffic. There are only two Silicon Valley companies in the mediation space, GRIC Communications (www. gric.com) and iPass (www.ipass.com). With the assistance of Cisco and a handful of standards groups, both GRIC and iPass are racing to build the world’s first global broadband roaming access network.
The rivals both made their fortunes building dial-up alliances_ For its part, GRIC has knitted together a formidable global alliance of 300 ISPs and telecom companies.
As a middleman, GRIC estimates its services reach 60 million end users worldwide. This is accomplished with an easy-to-download piece of end-user dial-up software (http://vvww.gric.com/ download/download.html/t_blank), some back-end settlement software in GRIC’s data closets and serious, serious negotiating skills among GRIC senior staff to bring together so many companies. Not a lot of heavy staff or equipment is needed to make the GRIC model work ? its headquarters in San Jose, California, notably reside in a modest one-story building, part of a larger office park of tech firms.
The Redwood Shores, California, based iPass serves more than 14,000 access points in 150 countries. Its client software is dubbed iPassConnect, which provides interoperability with a variety of firewall, anti?virus and VPN programs, including those from Cisco, Nortel, Microsoft, Check Point, ISS, Intel and Lucent. Roaming service can be ordered from a regional list of iPass providers.
There is a little bit of something for everyone in roaming access. End users get improved connectivity and ease-of-use. For harried IT departments attempting to keep roving sales forces and executives hooked up to the home office, the promise of roaming broadband is huge. The service could allow a network administrator to deploy a single user interface for various types of connectivity, making remote access services easier to use and therefore less expensive to support.
Vendors like it because the demand is there. Equipment sales in the wireless LAN space are expected to reach approximately $4.6 billion by 2005, according to Allen Nogee, an analyst of wireless component technology at Cahners I n-Stat Group (www.instat.com).
ISPs frustrated at being shut out of other parts of the last mile appreciate the open standards created by both fixed wireless and roaming access. GRIC and iPass employ a neutral-host roaming approach with their authentication and settlement technology. This means open access gateways and an open-architecture environment for other service providers, including ISPs and wireless ISPs (WISPs).
THE PROMISE OF WIFI
The wireline parts of the broadband network are DSL and ISDN. The broadband wireless portion will be handled by WiFi, or the new 802.11b standard. Any laptop modem or PDA armed with a WiFi card will be able to plug into a roaming alliance, no plugs or phone jacks needed. Travelers gain instant, secure wireless access to the Internet and corporate networks at any wireless “hotspot” ? such as an airport, hotel room or convention center. This is done at speeds averaging around 11 Mbps, the rough equivalent of seven T?1 lines. The system uses unlicensed 2.4 GHz frequencies for fixed wireless broadband services. The transport part of the equation utilizes tunneling and VPN technology for secure communications.
This means that the modus operandi for the two roaming access mediators is to gain their broadband connectivity through alliances with WISPs, telecoms and building local exchange carriers (BLECs).
The Asia Pacific region is the early hot spot for fixed wireless, so iPass’ first wireless partner predictably was inter-touch (www.inter-touch.com), a global supplier of broadband technologies to the hospitality industry. Together, the two companies will wire over 70 Asia Pacific (APAC) business-class hotels with roaming broadband.
‘The technology behind broadband roaming has been on our agenda for a little over a year. It’s still a very emergent technology with lots of deployment challenges,” says Howard Green, a senior director of marketing at iPass.
Rival GRIC announced it is going wireless by partnering with SkyNetGlobal (www.skynetglobal.com), a service provider in Australia. GRIC partners and customers will have wireless Internet access through SkyNetGlobal’s points of presence in more than 40 existing sites in Australia and New Zealand, with another planned 60 sites in Asia. SkyNetGlobal has just completed Australia’s largest 802.11 b wireless network, which connects to 30 airport lounges and 16 airports throughout Australia and New Zealand, as well as selected major hotels.
According to iPass, the inter-touch partnership fires back at GRIC by saying that it will get there first. Business travelers will find inter-touch’s broadband wireline Ethernet technology throughout the Pacific Rim in Bass, Hyatt, Sheraton and Marriott Hotels, as well as Qantas and Malaysian Airlines airport lounges. Rollout of the new global broadband roaming capabilities will begin in Sydney and Singapore, where iPass and inter-touch both maintain offices with support personnel.
NORTH AMERICA NEXT
This fall, iPass also inked a set of deals to bring WiFi to a variety of public spots in North America. In September, iPass announced it was teaming up with Wayport, which offers WiFi access throughout all terminals and gates at Daflas/Fort Worth, Seattle-Tacoma, San Jose and Austin-Bergstrom airports.
In October, iPass partnered with Concourse Communications (www.con coursecommunications.com) and its subsidiary, New York Telecom Partners, which has contracts pending with a number of airports. That list includes the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s JFK, Newark, and LaGuardia; Minneapolis/St Paul; and the Wayne County Metropolitan Airport in Detroit.
These announcements make for great press releases, but they represent only the vanguard of airports. Post September 11, even further delays were announced in the New York area. But that hasn’t necessarily translated into a loss of business for the roaming access providers.
Other airports could be even slower to adapt WiFi because they’ve been burned in the past. Mid-October, WiFi provisioner MobileStar shut off its network and laid off most its staff. This was after the WISP landed several airport contracts, indluding DFW and Louisville International in Kentucky, as well as 500 of the 3,000 Starbucks coffeehouses nationwide. Service at airports was the first to be shut down. American Airlines, which used MobileStar to provide wireless access at its Admirals Club lounges, was also left in the lurch.
“Before MobileStar, there was a company called Aerzone [a SoftNet Systems subsidiary that closed down operations in late 2000] that secured a lot of contracts and again went out of business,” says Perry Lewis, GRIC’s manager of corporate and business development. “Airports are getting leery dealing with … companies because they are tired of going through contract negotiations and deployment and then seeing their provider fail.”
Also among the wireless burnouts are bankrupt Metricom (www.metricom.com), a high-speed WISP best known for its Austin Powers-style TV spots plugging its Ricochet network. Apparently Richochet had a license to kill because the ill-timed network rollout added to Metricom’s net losses of around $769.7 million. Before the plug was pulled, only 51,200 Ricochet subscribers had signed on by June 30.
In-flight connectivity represents another weak link in the vision of a seamless Internet when traveling.
The airline and travel industries were hit hard by September’s acts of terrorism, and the fledgling industry of in-flight e-mail was no exception. Boeing’s pet company, Connexion (http://active.boeing .com/connexion), announced it would downsize 200 of 600 workers. European plane maker Airbus owns a minority stake in Tenzing Communications (www.tenz ing.com), which announced that it would restructure its operations and eliminate 80 jobs.
“The events of last September and their dramatic economic impact have severely affected.the investment plans of our commercial airline customers,” says Edward Nicol, Tenzing CEO.
In spite of the attrition, GRIC’s Lewis is still bullish on the future.
“Outside of New York, I don’t believe there’s any substantial slow down in WiFi deployment at airports,” he explains. “Most airport authorities won’t stand back and let this pass them by because they don’t want the airlines to grab a piece of the pie first.
“From a user perspective, too, it’s getting to a point where business travelers are expecting a lot of downtime due to new security measures. They’re going to the airport to check in at least two hours prior to departure, so they reed to maximize their business connectivity when they can.”
Jeff Abramowitz, executive director for the Wireless LAN Association (www .wlana.org), agrees: “The observations of [the impact of September 11] are fairly obvious,” he says. “You’ve got fewer travelers and potential customers in the near term. But people are spending more time in airports. It’s not clear how that shakes out over time.”
“The slow down in travel per se hasn’t translated into a slow-down in business,” adds Anurag Lal, a vice president of business development and strategic service at iPass. “This is because our service also allows professionals to work from home remotely.
For the moment, neither iPass nor GRIC have a solid advantage. iPass, through Concourse Communications, will step into the vacuum left by MobileStar’s demise. The cable is deployed, but at the time this article went to press, the network was not yet lit. According to Lewis, parts of GRIC’s wireless network were just emerging from beta testing.
DIAL-UP ISN’T DEAD
Until the infrastructure catches up, dial-up remains the most ubiquitous part of both GRIC’s and iPass’ networks. If it has lost ground in the North American WiFi market, GRIC is making headway with further rollouts in Asia. The company is releasing Chinese and Japanese versions of its remote access client, GRICdial, to enable its network members to better penetrate one of the world’s fastest growing markets. Members include China Telecom and China Netcom, as well as most of the major service providers who are today making investments in the People’s Republic.
“The telecommunications market and with it, Internet usage, in China are exploding,” says Dr. Hong Chen, GRIC’s founder and CEO. “Virtually every major telecommunications equipment manufacturer is rushing to make major investments … because of the opportunity they see when China becomes a member of the World Trade Organization in November.”
GR1C is also regrouping by repurchasing up to 1 million shares of its common stock for cash in open market, negotiated, or block transactions. A smaller circulation should push its price earnings ratio higher. The company has approximately 20 million shares outstanding. A portion of the repurchased shares may be used for the company’s employee benefit plans, and the balance will be available for other general corporate purposes. No time limit was set for the completion of the program.
ROAMING WIRELESS INTERNET
Of course, no fledgling industry would be complete without a couple of trade associations and standards bodies to promote its interests. Broadband roaming access falls under the aegis of two organizations, WLANA, a more general, not-for-profit educational association that endorses the benefits of wireless networks, and the more aggressive Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (www.wi-fi.org).
While WLANA is technology agnostic, WECA pushes hard against competing wireless technologies, such as HomeRF, to make WiFi the dominant standard. WECA’s efforts include testing a broad range of products for interoperability. Among WLANA’s outreach is “Find an Access Point,” a search engine that locates public access points to wireless networks. (www.wlana.org/public/index.htm).
Both iPass and GRIC sit on a new standards subcommittee at WECA known as WiFi Internet Service Provider roaming (WISPr). The concept definitely has nerd sex appeal ? imagine your laptop or personal device roaming between networks as you move around, just as your cell phone roams between different analog networks.
“WISPr as a proposed spec is not finalized. The idea is a roaming settlement independent of who purchases service,” says WECA Communications Director Brian Grimm, who declined to put a timetable on when WISPr will be finalized. “It would work like a cell phone mode, where your primary service is AT&T, but if you roam into BellSouth territory, you still get all bills at AT&T.”
The success of any niche market often depends on the support from larger players. Microsoft, Intel, 3Com, Agere, Cisco, Dell, Intermec, Intersil and Nokia all support either WECA or WLANA.
Both GRIC and iPass belong to Cisco’s Internet Mobile Office initiative, a marketing programs to promote Cisco gear. As part of the agreement, GRIC and Cisco will develop a sales plan for the WLAN Internet roaming settlement package for infrastructure and service providers. The equipment vendor is positioning itself as the “Intel Inside” of roaming access. Just as long as its equipment is ubiquitous, Cisco is neutral as to who wins market dominance. The Cisco Internet Mobile Office package is comprised of wired and wireless products and technologies from Cisco, including security software based on Cisco VPN technology, which supports secure remote access computing.
Cisco’s interest in iPass is more than passing. In late 2000, the routing giant, along with a group of venture capitalists and companies, closed out a financing round of $50 million for iPass.
ITCHING TO ROAM
How well the roaming access industry weathers the current global crises remains to be seen. But the industry still exists to meet a need. Road warriors agree that travel is complicated and stressful enough these days without finding out the hard way that, say, an American RJ11 modem cable won’t run on Germany’s ISDN connections, or that the trials and errors of setting up an Internet connection wizard to successfully navigate both the hotel phone system and an international calling card ends up costing $50. For a nominal fee, business travelers can end up with a POP in every port. Savvy ISPs who join these alliances can end up with a value-added service that gives their customer base global reach when they get the itching to roam.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE