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WLAN's Big Day Out

Light Reading
LR Mobile News Analysis
Light Reading
5/22/2003

LONDON – The WLAN Event – The number of visitors and general buzz on the exhibition floor at London's WLAN Event today provided further proof that this market is fast becoming the great white hope of the beleaguered European wireless sector.

While the presence of the usual suspects – Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ), and Toshiba Corp. – ensured that the spin doctors were naturally out in force, the range of exhibitors (from billing vendors Portal Software Inc. (Nasdaq: PRSF) and Am-Beo to network carrier Interoute Telecommunications) confirm the scale of the technology's impact on the market.

Unstrung was there to report on the best (and worst) of the day's activities.

  • Hype of the Day Award goes to the launch of U.K. startup MyZones Ltd. (see MyZones Weds WiFi, B'band). MyZones claims to be the world's first integrated wireless LAN broadband service, despite similar offerings from Sputnik Inc. and a multitude of volunteer community "freenets" such as Consume.net in the U.K. and NYC Wireless in the U.S. (see Sputnik to Put WLAN Networking Into Orbit?).

    The idea is that the service allows consumers to set up a managed 802.11b (11-Mbit/s over 2.4GHz) network in their home to share their broadband connection with the neighborhood. With a range of up to 100 meters, the company is convinced users will want to share broadband costs with neighbors and the local community. It's not clear if users will now throw down WLAN cards rather than car keys when attending swinging parties in their caring, sharing communities.

    Chief executive Clive Mayhew-Begg was feeling rather pleased with his latest venture. "I make no mistake when I call this technology 4G," he gushed [ed. note: NTT DoCoMo Inc. (NYSE: DCM) and friends may disagree (see NTT Goes for 4G Trials)]. "Every major broadband provider in the UK will be providing Wi-Fi broadband services in the next two years."

    Lofty aspirations, but it also raises the issue of whether ISP's will actually allow consumers to break the terms and conditions of their contracts by sharing the cost of such a network. Asked whether the company is encouraging such behavior, Mayhew-Begg replied sheepishly, "We are enabling it. It is purely up to the consumer."

  • Intel wins the silver medal for its ongoing marketing efforts around Centrino. Claus Bjoernsten, who is the chipmaker's EMEA regional mobile platforms manager [ed. note: when he isn't too busy chasing chickens], hailed the wireless LAN market's potential as "ten times that of the Internet," adding that "this is the birth of a new lifestyle." Bjoernsten's colleague Andrew Greenhaigh, marketing director for the company's mobile solutions division, opened the conference with a video describing the wireless LAN market as one teetering on the edge of a 'tipping point' -- any event that has a global impact on the environment. Other such, er, tipping points apparently include the fall of the Berlin Wall and the invention of processed cheese slices.

  • Rumors also abound of the premature death of a certain rival wireless networking technology -- Bluetooth. David Hughes, director of mobility at BT Retail, admits that the company has given up any future hopes of using the technology. "I don't see it as a primary interface for accessing wireless networks. Wi-Fi has overtaken it," he tells Unstrung. MyZones' Mayhew-Begg adds his view that "the whole investment community has shied away from it of late. Wi-Fi is where the money is now."

    Despite the hype, analysts cruising the show floor maintain a level of skepticism over the technology's potential to become a real money-spinner. "There is still a lot of self-delusion from companies in this market," comments Dean Bubley, founder and CEO of Disruptive Analysis [ed. note: winner of Best Company Name]. "There are a lot of people with their heads buried in the sand." Michael Ransom, senior analyst at Current Analysis, also fires a warning shot to European carriers currently embarking on a hotspot acquisition spree (see Swisscom Buys a Bevy of PWLAN and KPN Signs Piddly Deals). "I'm not convinced operators are going to make money out of public wireless LAN," he argues. "The jury is still out on that."

    Justin Springham, Senior Editor, Europe, Unstrung

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