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Roaming Agreements Could Expand the Wi-Fi Renaissance

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Thanks to the iPad, expect to see a lot more written about Wi-Fi over the next few days. The still-unattainable device (you can buy one in late March) is already being credited for bringing back the importance of fixed broadband networks, as they provide the backhaul for Wi-Fi networks. Paul Sharma over at the Wall Street Journal writes:

WiFi takeoff will encourage additional investment in this technology, which is cheap to roll out, and will tilt the competitive balance back toward fixed. Looking at the broader picture, if a good urban Wi-Fi network is thrown in for free with a fixed network rental, it’s hard at this stage to tell whether this will represent substitutional or additional telecoms spend.

Last week, I asked our readers what they most wanted as a perk from their ISP, and the most popular answer by far was Wi-Fi access while on the go. Wi-Fi access has become popular with users and with certain Internet Services Providers both as a way to reduce the data deluge on wireless networks but also to reduce churn among subscribers, as smartphones with Wi-Fi become more commonplace (see chart). But signing onto Wi-Fi is kind of  a pain for a consumer who may be obliviously surfing along on a 3G network.

So will ISPs take the consumer love of ubiquitous broadband and carriers’ need for offload to the next level and create the equivalent of roaming agreements for Wi-Fi? Greg Williams, the new SVP of corporate development at Bel Air Networks, thinks they might. Williams, a founder of Wayport, the hotspot aggregator purchased in 2008 by AT&T, recently joined BelAir, a company that builds carrier-grade Wi-Fi equipment for customers including Cablevision (s cvc), Comcast (s cmcsa)  and AT&T (s T).

He wonders if carriers will negotiate with each other and fixed-line ISPs to get access for their wireless subscribers, especially in congested cities such as New York or San Francisco. I’m kind of skeptical, simply because I think most carriers are not experiencing enough pain to want to cut into their data revenue inside big cities, but it’s an intriguing idea. Regardless, BelAir, Meraki, Tropos and Cisco (s csco) will all likely continue to benefit from the buildout of carrier-quality Wi-Fi networks.

Another beneficiary of the iPad/Wi-Fi buildout could be the MiFi personal hotspot from Novatel (s snvtl), which offers users a Wi-Fi signal while using the cellular network for backhaul. I have gotten excited about  personal hot spots before, and Sharma namechecks the MiFi in his article as well. Either way, fixed broadband isn’t in danger of being subjugated by fixed-line broadband anytime soon. Few people will dump their wired networks for wireless given the high cost of mobile data. Rather we’ll demand more seamless coverage without caring what technology we’re using or who provides it.

Image courtesy Flickr user Adventures in Librarianship.

9 Responses to “Roaming Agreements Could Expand the Wi-Fi Renaissance”

  1. It’ll take a lot of small coalitions (e.g. Cablevision allowing more roaming while on Long Island) before this takes off. I doubt the billions spent on Aloha Partners spectrum as well as the 700 MHz licenses will be written off.

  2. SailingCyclops

    Were I live there is little choice in Internet providers. I have one and only one choice, Verizon DSL. However, I do have good signal from OptOnline WIFI. OptOnline does not service my neighborhood with cable however. I called them and asked if I could subscribe to their WIFI independently of their cable service, which they can’t/won’t provide. No was their answer!

    What I would like to see is a move to sell WIFI independently of a provider’s wired services. Couple that with roaming access agreements with other WIFI providers, and ubiquity is further realized.

  3. “Few people will dump their wired networks for wireless given the high cost of mobile data. Rather we’ll demand more seamless coverage without caring what technology we’re using or who provides it.”

    Couldn’t agree more. Users care about access, not what network or even who’s. But roaming agreements are just the start. Mobile operators need to consider providing consistent access to network services regardless of what wireless network technology is in use as well. Not doing so risks brand erosion for themselves and security risks for their subscribers among others.

    All of this can be solved. The standards have been in place and ‘interworking’ products on the market for years.

  4. Greg Williams is not a Wayport Founder. He started with the company in 2003. Wayport was founded by Brett Stewart in 1998 after splitting off from Mobilestar. At that time Mr. Williams was in operations at SBC, and was responsible for the unwinding of Prodigy’s network in 2001.

    Brett Stewart was the “inventor” of the WiFi hotspot, and inventor on several patents involving things such as location based ad delivery, triangulation of users in a wireless environment, multiple beacon service set identifiers (BSSIDs).

    Mr Williams was brought into Wayport by then CEO Dave Vucina to assist winning the original McDonald’s deal versus Cometa and Mobilestar. He was also responsible for the de-emphasis of Wayport as a provider of internet access in the Hotel space.

    Mr. Williams got AT&T to sign onto a large deal with BelAir, and quickly jumped ship over to BelAir within weeks of the deal going through.

    His benefit to a company (such as Wayport and BelAir) is the depth and breadth of his contacts at AT&T; in essence by bringing him on, BelAir has instant knowledge of the inner workings of AT&T.