NEW ORLEANS—Major carriers disagree on the commercial viability of public WLAN hot spots and, as such, are taking very different approaches to the market.
While companies such as Nextel Communications Inc. and Sprint PCS Group are taking a wait-and-see approach to 802.11b, or Wi-Fi, others such as Verizon Wireless Inc., AT&T Wireless Services Inc. and Cingular Wireless are moving ahead with new services. The latter moves are not surprising, considering the rapid rollouts of wireless LAN hot spots. Currently, there are some 3,000 commercial, pay-per-use WLANs deployed throughout the United States, the majority of which run on Wi-Fi.
Other companies, such as Verizon, that were on hand at the CTIA Wireless show here last week are planning to ride that wave. The Bedminster, N.J., company plans to offer complementary access between its branded WLAN hot-spot service and its WAN by the third quarter. Working with hot-spot provider Wayport Inc., of Austin, Texas, Verizon will provide network monitoring, authentication and billing for the roaming service, which will be available through distribution channels, including business-to-business sales teams.
Wayport also has a roaming deal with AT&T Wireless, which sells Wi-Fi services through its enterprise sales force. The Redmond, Wash., wireless carrier has additional plans to make Wi-Fi less of a separate entity and more of a complement to its wide-area GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) network.
"Our longer-term vision is to integrate it into our network offering," said Rod Nelson, chief technology officer of AT&T Wireless. Integration will mean common authentication and billing for users. Nelson declined to give a due date.
Cingular looks to offer services that merge WLAN access with its network services. The company plans to partner with a hot-spot company such as service provider Boingo Wireless Inc. or technology provider Cometa Networks Inc., officials said. The company has yet to pick a partner.
"Our goal would be to have both [Enhanced Data Rates for Global Evolution] and GPRS work with 802.11," said Terry Durand, executive director for wireless data at Cingular, in Atlanta. "We believe theyre complementary."
There are similarities between WLAN services and other high-speed data services. Last week, Verizon announced plans to offer high-speed Code Division Multiple Access 1xEV-DO service in San Diego and Washington, with plans to branch out to other metropolitan areas later this year.
As for WLANs, however, some carriers say the technology, offering data rates of up to 11M bps, is still immature.
Tim Donahue, president and CEO of Nextel, in Reston, Va., said because WLANs are so easy for end users to deploy, its difficult to turn them into a business.
Sprint PCS remains neutral on the subject, but officials at the Kansas City, Mo., company are investigating billing structures for Wi-Fi in case the market takes off. "If it comes, well be ready," said Len Lauer, president of Sprint PCS.
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