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SBC's Hotspot Hoopla

Service provider SBC Communications Inc. (NYSE: SBC) has announced the launch of a wireless LAN hotspot service this fall -- and ambitious plans to install a network of 20,000 802.11 access points in the U.S. by the end of 2006 (see SBC Lays Out WiFi Plan)

SBC is also developing software that will enable WLAN hotspot users to roam onto Cingular Wireless's wide-area cellular network. Initially, the software won't seamlessly move between networks but, rather, inform users of local network availability and allow them to choose. To take advantage of this service a user will require a PC card that supports WLAN and cellular connectivity. Cingular, the second largest mobile operator in the U.S., is a joint venture between BellSouth Corp. (NYSE: BLS) and SBC.

Michael Coe, a spokesman for SBC, says the company will start installing hotspots in (you guessed it!) airports, convention centers, and hotels, but plans to branch out into restaurants and other locations after the initial rollouts. He adds that SBC is still in negotiations with hardware vendors over who will supply the 802.11 kit needed for the venture.

The company will initially charge on a per-usage basis but plans to introduce monthly subscriptions and then cut-rate bundled packages for new and existing DSL customers as the service matures, Coe says.

The network build-out will result in 20,000 access points in 6,000 locations across America within three years, according to SBC. The company has also announced a roaming deal with wireless LAN service provider Wayport Inc. (see Wayport Supports SBC's WiFi).

Hotspot hotshot Cometa Networks Inc. is the only other firm that has such big plans for developing a stateside public WLAN network. It wants to have 25,000 hotspots in place by the end of 2005 (see Rainbow Unveiled). However, some analysts have suggested that Cometa -- a joint venture of AT&T Corp. (NYSE: T), IBM Global Services, and Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) -- is already falling behind in its implementation targets, a charge the company refutes (see Cometa's Hotspot Hassles).

Despite these apparent teething problems over at Cometa, Coe insists that SBC is confident it can reach its own ambitious targets and find a customer base for the service. "We've been pre-conditioning the market," he says, noting that the company sells around 2,000 802.11 home gateways a day that DSL subscribers use for wireless Internet access in the home.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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