In a future world in which road warriors travel about armed with a laptop and WLAN card, Internet access will be widespread, and sometimes free, if some in the industry have their way. "I think the whole concept of billing is archaic," said Hatim Zaghloul, chairman, CEO and co-founder of Wi-LAN Inc., the Calgary, Alberta, developer of fixed wireless network gear.
In Zaghlouls vision of the future, businesses with public spaces such as restaurants and cafes will offer wireless LAN use to customers for free to differentiate themselves from competitors. This contrasts with one early instance in which MobileStar Network Corp., of Richardson, Texas, offered wireless connectivity to customers at Starbucks Corp. coffee shops. The service was not free, except when users accessed Starbucks Web site.
But restaurants arent the only institutions that might find it to their advantage to give something away for free. Corporations may start opening up their WLANs for Internet access to visitors to their corporate campuses. "The concept is more of a cooperative network, starting from big enterprises and big restaurants," Zaghloul said.
Ultimately, network providers may authenticate a user first before allowing access, Zaghloul said. The operator will check the user against a database to see that the user subscribes to Internet service from some provider.
The operator can decide to offer use of the network depending on relationships with the users home service provider or the users standing, Zaghloul said.
Operators may also provide different levels of quality of service. Depending on the type of plan the user has, he or she will get the highest and fastest level or the lowest-level, emergency-only access when roaming onto a network.
"There will be free networks and paid networks," said Dan Lowden, vice president of marketing and business development for Wayport Inc., based in Austin, Texas.
The paid networks will offer a higher quality of service and tech support, Lowden said. They will be available in places such as hotels and airports. But restaurants may offer free access, and independent residents in cities will continue to construct what Lowden calls "hippy networks," or free WLANs open to anyone within reach.
"You and I are tired of nickel-and-diming. We dont want to pay every time we check an e-mail," Wi-LANs Zaghloul said. "Its very contrary to the spirit of the Internet. The spirit of the Internet is very free for all."