The roaming agreement will be run under the auspices of the WBA (Wireless Broadband Alliance), a collection of wireless carriers that originated in Asia.
Along with T-Mobile USA and four of its overseas divisions, the six carriers are the BT Group, Telecom Italia, Maxis, NTT Communications, StarHub and Telstra.
Together, they will serve the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Italy, the Czech Republic, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and the United States. In total, the WBA agreement will cover more than 11,500 hot spots.
Existing T-Mobile customers will be able to roam the associated networks free of charge until the end of 2004. After that time, the individual carriers will assign their own surcharges to the roaming agreements, which the carriers said have not yet been determined.
In October, Bellevue, Wash.-based T-Mobile signed a separate agreement with BT OpenZone covering 10,000 hotspots in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Although Wi-Fi as a technology has reached maturity, the business model behind public hot spots and roaming is still unrefined. Wi-Fi is known for being unreliable and difficult to connect, said Kyong Yu, chairman of the Wireless Broadband Alliance and a senior vice president at StarHub, a wireless ISP based in Singapore. Members said a balkanized Wi-Fi billing framework—with different pricing models, billing structures and roaming agreements—is restraining the Wi-Fi markets growth.
That aside, hot-spot use climbed 600 percent in 2004 when compared with 2003, according to Roberta Wiggins, an analyst with The Yankee Group in Boston. About 12 percent of the Wi-Fi user base has used a hot spot, she said.
In response, WBA members said they looked to the airlines for inspiration. The Star Alliance, for example, comprises several regional carriers, such as Air New Zealand and SpanAir, which dont compete with United Airlines in the United States. The airlines connect to one another and offer shared loyalty programs, similar to the roaming agreements the WBA has set up.
"What does this mean for a Wi-Fi user?" Yu asked. "The wireless broadband user will now be able to seamlessly roam in any wireless-enabled hot spot and will use their own ID and password."