SAN FRANCISCO—T-Mobiles wireless division said Wednesday that it has signed partnership agreements with six other wireless carriers, allowing single sign-on services to 11 countries around the globe.
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.”
-Mobile Software”> The WBA lacks representation of French and Scandinavian WISPs (wireless ISPs), members acknowledged. Without naming names, Yu said the alliance hopes to rectify that situation by early next year.
The new roaming agreements will be reflected in T-Mobiles Connection Manager software, which stores WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) keys and displays nearby hot spots; and its offline HotSpot Locator, a database of hot spots where T-Mobile users can connect. That suited Patrick Ryan, a director of global channels at Richardson, Texas-based security firm Network Intelligence Inc., just fine.
Ryan, who travels both to Asia and Europe selling solutions to clients such as EDS and IBM, said he and other business travelers schedule a block of meetings in a country or region, then try and hunt down a hot spot to connect back to the office.
Ryan, a T-Mobile subscriber who was asked to speak at the T-Mobile news conference here at the San Francisco International Airport, said he uses the HotSpot Locator tool to hunt relevant hot spots.
More importantly, Ryan now also uses the hot spots to make VOIP calls. “Before I went, I went down to Frys, bought a … throwaway router and tossed it in my bag,” he said in an interview. “I brought along my [VOIP phone], hooked it all up, tried it out. It worked like a charm.”
The amount of surcharges or tariffs that will be added to the wireless bill are unknown, although the market will prevent foreign WISPs from pushing the tab too high, said Chris Clark, chief executive of wireless broadband at BT Retail, a division of British Telecom. The topic is the subject of a current focus group, he said in an interview.
Ideally, the partnership will result in a one-ISP, one-country relationship, Clark said. He said he doubted that the European Union would see the relationship as anti-competitive, especially as BT supplies the baseline Wi-Fi services for France Telecom, or Orange, and Vodafone.
For now, the WBA has not worked out which ISPs will be responsible for covering the Chunnel train running from London to Paris, or whether they will compete to provide Wi-Fi services inside airplanes serving multiple countries, Clark said. He said he was unaware of any competing initiatives among other European WISPs.
T-Mobiles Wi-Fi hot spots are also found at SFO. An airport at the northern end of Silicon Valley without Wi-Fi would be a little embarrassing, said John M. Payne, chief information officer at SFO. Customers asked about the 802.11g spec soon after Apple Computer Inc. announced its AirPort Extreme, Payne said in an interview.
“Its nice to have,” he said. “Personally, though, I dont think people choose an airport for their Internet connection.”
Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis on mobile and wireless computing.