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Cometa Leans on Startup

Public wireless LAN hotspot joint venture Cometa Networks Inc. is using hotspot billing and management software from tiny startup AuthDirect Inc. as a "temporary" placeholder while it waits for AT&T Corp. (NYSE: T) and IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) to complete systems that will enable it to bill for bandwidth on a much larger scale, Unstrung has learned.

Cometa wants to roll out a hotspot network in hotels, airports, and stores across the U.S. and sell the bandwidth through service providers and other major retail partners, such as McDonalds (see Rainbow Unveiled). However, this wholesale model means the venture, which is supported by Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) as well as AT&T and IBM, has some very specific requirements for billing and management software.

Cometa needs software that can be customized to reflect the brand of the hotel or store that is offering the service. Then the software must prompt the user for a password or credit card and once those details are authenticated, log the time that a person spends at that hotspot and route that information to network operations support systems (OSSs).

Gordon Townsend, VP of marketing and sales at AuthDirect, says Cometa has selected his company's software because of the capability of its customer interface to reflect the identity of the hotspot location or branded owner, which fits with their business model of reselling wireless LAN access services. "We can uniquely brand the software to each and every one of their venues," he says.

Cometa says it's happy with the AuthDirect relationship, but characterizes the deal as temporary.

"Cometa has been working with Auth Direct as a temporary solution to our permanent ATT solution; which will be launched shortly," says a Cometa spokesman in an email. "We have been extremely pleased with the AuthDirect solution, and as the Cometa network grows, we hope to continue to work with them in a scope to be determined by our network and as partner needs dictate and utilizing Auth Direct's specialized services."

Within this mixed message, it's clear that Cometa might continue to use AuthDirect but that it is clearly seeking help from AT&T and IBM. AuthDirect currently employs around 15 people

So what is Cometa's ultimate back office goal? AT&T is developing what it's calling the Wireless Authentication and Authorization System (WAAS) for the venture. As the name suggests, this software will confirm a user's password or credit card details when they first arrive at a hotspot and route this information over its IP network to the OSS systems.

Cometa says this software will be available "very soon." Unstrung has heard it may surface in the next three weeks. (And when it goes live, we'll be able to call it WAAS-UP.)

But Cometa's OSS strategy may not be as clearcut as it seems. Some sources have suggested that Cometa has already ditched a grandiose IBM Global Services software scheme, and had no choice but to turn to an off-the-shelf solution while key development decisions were made (see Cometa's Hotspot Hassles).

However, the Cometa spokesman refutes this, saying the company needed to use third-party code to roll out its 10 initial live sites. "We had to go to market before these systems were ready," he says. "But we're not at huge volumes yet, so it's not a problem."

IBM is still involved in the ongoing OSS development, he adds, but the companies just don't want to give too many details away yet. He did reveal that the code is being built to allow multiple service providers to send information to a single back-end system, and suggested that it will be much more scaleable than current wireless LAN-oriented systems.

"What we're talking about building is something that needs to scale massively over a number of years," the spokesman says.

Cometa, which is using 802.11 access points and controllers from Colubris Networks Inc. for its hotspot deployments, expects to announce more sites in the third and fourth quarters of this year. However, most analysts Unstrung has spoken to still question how the company will meet its initial targets of 25,000-plus hotspots by 2004.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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