Roaming Agreements Put Wi-Fi on the Map

Roaming agreements are finally delivering on the "Wi-Fi is everywhere" promise and none too soon, now that entire communities are lighting up as hot spots.

As recently as a few months ago, mobility—true mobility—was still a pipe dream in the wireless equation.

Now theres more fire than smoke in that pipe. The drive to sign roaming agreements that allow users to move seamlessly from Wi-Fi network to Wi-Fi network has gained momentum since the first of the year. Before the year ends, were likely to see more truth than slogan in the adage "Wi-Fi is everywhere."

And its about time. The push comes at the very time that WiMax and other technologies are poised to supplant traditional Wi-Fi networks,

In truth, Wi-Fi is already everywhere and has been for some time. But Wi-Fi broadband service, once you travel away from your hone network, recalls the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner": "Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink." Everywhere is as good as nowhere when you cant get to it.

Access vanished whenever we roamed outside our providers service area. Even public hot spots werent so public. Most are aligned with a service provider. Without roaming agreements—and there have been only a few among the major carriers—the Verizon DSL customer couldnt expect service at a T-Mobile hot spot such as Starbucks without having to sign up independently for a T-Mobile plan or subscribing to its partner, iPass, which offers an aggregated offering of services across many networks.

/zimages/2/28571.gifLooking for a Wi-Fi hot spot? Click here for eWEEK.coms hot-spot directory.

Thats changing—and fast, though not fast enough for users hungry for access. Recently, Sprint Corp. and SBC Communications Inc. announced a deal that allows customers to use both companies wireless Internet connections. Sprint has been more active than other carriers. Since it began offering Wi-Fi service through its Sprint PCS Group in September, 2003, it has signed roaming agreements with a variety of networks, including AT&T Wireless, Wayport, STSN, Airpath and Concourse Communications. The company promises that, by years end, it will have extended its footprint of hot spots to 10,000, which will put it on a par with access services such as Boingo, iPass and Infonet, which aggregate access services and boast hot-spot networks in the 9000-to-10,000 range.

AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile in February signed a three-airport roaming deal that extends access to one anothers customers in the Denver, Philadelphia and San Francisco airports. More significantly, T-Mobile began offering Comcast cable broadband customers a service package to its network of roughly 4,000 hot spots. AT&T Wireless has also partnered in a roaming agreement with Wayport, the service provider for McDonalds and a key player in the hotel hot-spot space. Wayport, in turn, has a roaming agreement with Verizon Wireless.

So "everywhere" is shaping up like a web of interconnected services and hot spots dotting the map—and none too soon.

It wont be long before were accessing Wi-Fi in a very different way than we are now. Already were seeing metropolitan plans move into place.

In New York City, six providers have begun installing equipment atop traffic lights, street lamps and other public fixtures to extend Wi-Fi, along with cellular networks and Internet telephony, to city residents.

Chaska, Minn., this spring launched a program thats more in line with whats practical for the average American city. Chaska will offer a municipal Wi-Fi service that competes with commercial providers for about $16 a month.

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