SAN JOSE, Calif.—The future of value-add services in the Wi-Fi space can be summed up in one word: roaming.
Without roaming agreements to simplify the billing and log-on procedures that now complicate the use of Wi-Fi hotspots, user adoption cannot achieve the kind of critical mass needed to make Wi-Fi value-added services truly profitable.
That was the message sent by key players attending the Wi-Fi Planet conference here this week. The conference features a series of panels to identify partnering and value-add opportunities in the Wi-Fi publlic access (better known as hotspot) space. Across the board, participants agreed that opportunites in the United States were stalled behind the roaming issue. Until universal roaming agreements are in place, most agreed, only the most technically attuned mobile professionals would make serious use of hotspots.
Outside of the United States, in countries that have embraced the GSM mobile standard that more easily facilitates universal billing, the scenario is somewhat different.
Jan Eldenmalm, CEO of Amazingports AB, a public network service operator in Sweden, offered a vision of what the future could hold in the United States when—and if—the roaming issue is resolved and critical mass is achieved. In Sweden, he noted, users use Internet phones, PDAs, laptops and other mobile devices to access entertainment, as well as voice and data offerings, via public wireless networks.
Ken Helleburst, vice president of marketing for Cometa Networks, the wholesale wireless carrier founded by AT&T, Intel and IBM, said that "Intels enormous Centrino push" may soon change the U.S. scenario. Intel has begun a program to certify Wi-Fi hotspots that interoperate with Centrino-based devices and has invested heavily in a campaign to make American users more Centrino-savvy.
Moves to facilitate roaming, however, were under way even before Intels "push."
Aggregators of Wi-Fi services, including organizations such as Boingo and iPass, work as clearinghouses among wireless service providers to support single-bill roaming. They have been instrumental in forging relationships with multiple competing wireless service providers to offer consumers a single plan through which they can access the Internet through the participating providers networks.
"There are a lot of aggregators that are helping in this," said Joel Short, CTO and senior vice president of Nomadix, a manufacturer of intelligent gateways that enable service providers to deploy revenue-generating services using their current infrastructure.
Standardizing business models and business relationships, said Short, who also serves as co-chair of the public access committee for the Wi-Fi Alliance, should also help facilitate roaming relationships.
Some niche players have already begun marketing value-added Wi-Fi services. Chief among them is Zinio, which supplies the reader formatted much like a print magazine for Ziff Davis publications is an example.