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Carrier WiFi

WBA's Hotspot Hiccups?

Plans by the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) to open up over 50,000 global hotspots to roaming wireless LAN users by the end of next year have been called into doubt following reports that the group is unable to predict when subscribers of its 17 member operators will be able to seamlessly access services.

Last week the alliance announced the inclusion of several European and Asian heavyweight carrier names, intended to double the number of hotspots available to traveling customers within the next twelve months (see Hotspots Open Up, Asia Opens Up to WLAN and Hotspot Roaming Fires Up).

According to a Commsday Asia report, however, a WBA spokesman has admitted that the alliance is yet to iron out many aspects of roaming interoperability.

“Roaming faces a number of challenges, in terms of integration with backend infrastructure and so forth,” says the spokesbod. “Combine that with the number of wireless platforms that potentially could be integrated into roaming… and you can see the levels of complexities that are involved.”

When asked about the timing of a full roaming launch across the Alliance, he added that “we are not able to give specifics at this time.”

Of the 17 members, only Telstra Corp., China Netcom, Maxis, and StarHub have participated in a technical roaming trial thus far. Launched in July 2003 and originally targeted to end at the end of this month, the trial has now been extended to March 15, 2004 in an effort to enable more carriers to test out interoperability of their systems.

Korea Telecom and British Telecommunications plc (BT) (NYSE: BTY; London: BTA) recently outlined plans to join the trials, but the latter’s efforts were hit by early teething problems. Steve Andrews, managing director of BT Retail for products and enterprises, last week admitted that the carrier was due to connect up its hotspots but had to back out at the last minute. “There was some issue with the Telstra connection,” he revealed.

Analysts claim the alliance is an important step in promoting takeup of hotspot services, but stress the challenges involved in overcoming roaming interoperability issues.

“Judging by the progress so far, it will take at least another 12 months [for full interoperability],” warns Ovum Ltd.’s research director for wireless, Richard Dineen. “The past rate of development is not necessarily a guide to the future, but clearly there are huge hurdles to overcome. All these carriers will have different billing systems and arrangements in place. Technical roaming is just the first step. The commercial framework then needs finalizing.”

— Justin Springham, Senior Editor, Europe, Unstrung

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