Public WLANs Take Root

Products from HP, IBM, Toshiba to spur spread of public wireless networks.

Plans by several mobile computing vendors to deploy pay-per-use and subscription-based WLANs in public spaces across the country are spurring development of software and hardware for service providers, as well as new devices for users.

Hewlett-Packard Co. this week in New York will launch a public wireless LAN initiative that includes new equipment, implementation and hosting services, as well as management and billing software for customers looking to launch their own WLAN services.

"You want to be able to make things that easy," said Michael Flanagan, worldwide WLAN solutions and programs manager at HP, in Santa Clara, Calif. "Youve got to be able to set up the billing structures on the back end and the subscription issues on the front end."

Novice WLAN service providers agreed that having a ready-made solution sped their time to market.

"It made things easier, especially for a startup," said Anindya Ghosh, founder and CEO of Kubi Wireless S.L., a "hot spot" service provider in Barcelona, Spain, that launched last month in several Spanish hotels. "We were able to host our back-end stuff in the HP facilities."

HP estimates a cost of about $10,000 for a public WLAN pilot, depending on the complexity of the site. This is a far cry from the $199 "hot spot in a box" solution that Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. is announcing this week, along with its own hosting services.

Officials at HP said setting up a public WLAN takes more than a single piece of hardware but added that the company will be offering its own hot spot in a box within a few months.

IBM Global Services is also interested in the WLAN hot-spot business. It has joined with Nokia Corp. to launch a solution later this year that combines services and equipment.

According to a recent report from In-Stat/MDR, it is estimated that the number of locations available for public access will grow worldwide from 2,000 last year to 42,000 in 2006, with service revenues experiencing a corresponding growth, reaching $642.6 million in 2006, up from $11.3 million last year.

Counting on a jump in demand for client-side equipment, HP this week will also launch six notebooks in its Compaq Evo, Compaq Presario and HP Pavilion lines that support 802.11b. The Evo and Presario notebooks include the Multiport, an integrated wireless module that resides in the top of the notebook. The company is also launching the PocketPC H3900, which features Intel Corp.s new Xscale processor and includes 802.11b support.

Initially, the success of public WLANs depends on business travelers, who depend on network security.

To that end, HP, of Palo Alto, Calif., is teaming with iPass Inc., a Redwood Shores, Calif., company that focuses on integrating VPNs (virtual private networks) into hot spots. iPass technology includes a one- click solution, which allows credentials to be passed automatically to most major VPN clients, and an "auto-teardown" feature, which will disconnect if the VPN tunnel is lost.

iPass also focuses on the issue of roaming. Company officials last week in Miami met with members of the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance to discuss the Generic Interface Specification, a proposal for an HTTP-based authentication protocol between clients and gateways that is compatible with existing Web browser authentication protocols.

For the future, companies in the public WLAN space hope to take it to the next level, offering services that support WLAN and wide-area, third-generation cellular networks.

There is a catch. "The carriers must be involved for a variety of reasons," HPs Flanagan said, but they have been wary of WLANs for competitive reasons. "The telcos are still going, OK, how does this not cut into our revenue?"

Still, HP reports that the company is close to signing deals with two U.S. wireless carriers and will announce its intent for services that combine WAN and WLAN support before the end of the year.

Related stories:

  • WLANs to Get More Secure
  • Toshiba Talks Up Hot Spots
  • Internet Insight: Hot Spots
  • 802.11a and 802.11g Evolve the WLAN Space
  • Sniffing Out Rogue Wireless LANs