T-Mobile: WLAN Loner

Could T-Mobile U.S.'s decision not to allow rivals to roam on its revamped HotSpot wireless LAN service (see Starbucks Hotspots (Slight Return)) further the "balkanization" of the emerging market, or drive competitors to forge closer ties with each other?

The carrier's smaller rivals have differing takes on the situation, with some believing that -- despite the fact that the company will soon have the largest WLAN hotspot network in the U.S, with 2000 access points promised by the end of the year -- T-Mobile cannot go it alone.

"The number of network nodes needed to support the coverage requirements of the business travelers from Fortune 500 companies is significantly larger than any one company can provide," says Christian Gunning, director of product marketing at Boingo Wireless Inc.. Boingo has over 700 hotspots signed up to its national network, with "several thousand" more in negotiation. Like T-Mobile, Boingo has developed sniffing software that allows subscribers to find local "freenet" access points (see Sputnik to Put WLAN Networking Into Orbit?).

The difference between T-Mobile and most of its rivals is that the operator is committed to building its own hotspot network, rather than signing agreements with hotels, airports, cafes, and other retail and business spaces that have already implemented 802.11b access points on their premises -- as have companies like Boingo, iPass Inc., and Joltage Networks.

Michael Chaplo, president and CEO of Joltage, although stressing that he won't specifically talk about competitors, notes that numerous companies have already tried and failed to build out WLAN network footprints. Perhaps most notable among them is MobileStar, the company that T-Mobile bought in January of this year. MobileStar originally inked the relationship with Starbucks that T-Mobile is banking so heavily on and built out 500 access points before going belly-up.

Chaplo reckons that WLAN network operators will have to sign reciprocal roaming agreements in order to provide high quality, ubiquitous service. As its stands, most of the WLAN operators charge subscribers to roam on their hotspot networks and offer sniffing software to let subscribers find free community hotspots if they move out of range of the operator's access points.

If this situation remains as is, then T-Mobile will gain a definite advantage over smaller operators simply because it has more hotspots and users will know they can go to one of the Starbucks coffee houses that infest street corners in cities across the U.S. and have a reasonable chance of being able to download their email wirelessly.

However, Chaplo says that, although Joltage is in the process of talking to other operators, any roaming agreements will have to be "true peer-to-peer" arrangements. "Everyone wants to own the customer and the billing arrangement" -- but for WLAN to work, the operators have to respect each other's customer base and not try to poach them.

Some companies are even saying that T-Mobile may eventually drop its hard-line, go-it-alone stance.

"I'm hoping this is a short-term strategy," says Anurag Lal, VP of business development at iPass. "They've made public statements saying they don't support roaming: I'm hoping that will change."

Unstrung called T-Mobile to try and get the carrier's latest thoughts on WLAN roaming, but it hadn't returned our calls by press time.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung
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