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Normally, "strategic relationships" aren't worth much of a look; but a deal done between Transat and Gemplus could open up a new universal roaming system from phone to WLAN and back again, as users move around cities.

As announced, the agreement is merely "to extend secure WLAN access to enterprise and home markets" - by using smartcard security.

What it actually means, however, is that within a very short time, anybody who operates a wireless "hot spot" could find themselves earning a little extra money by connecting phone subscribers to the Internet. And the number of hotspots offered by phone operators could rocket.

The two enterprises have focused on a user authentication system developed by Transat: it's called WAIN (Wireless Access Internet Node) by using Gemplus smart card technology.

"This solution will address the security concerns of WLAN devices and enable wireless operators to use their existing infrastructure to offer WLAN access as part of their service portfolio," says the official press announcement.

To understand why this is important, you only have to go back a couple of weeks, to the recent 3GSM Congress in Cannes where a company called t-net, developer of the WeRoam service, got together with Transat and Performance Technologies (PTIX) to demonstrate (you have to register) seamless roaming between WLAN and GSM networks at the exhibition.

Working together, the three companies were able to unify WLAN networks with the GSM network community allowing subscribers to roam between networks and yet have a single identity and receive just one bill.

Add smartcard authentication, and you have WLAN users able to roam freely between WLAN and GPRS networks, without having to sign onto a new Megabeam or OpenZone or Costa Coffee or Starbucks or hotel-based mini-LAN every time you go more than 30 feet away.

"The use of the smart card allows enterprises, mobile, and fixed network operators to offer secure WLAN roaming to their customers over their existing infrastructure," said the release. "Residential WLANs also benefit from the trusted security model based on SIM functionality."

It's hard to see any operators of WLAN hotspots resisting the lure of this. If you run a huge network of prime hotspot sites, it's still going to be a certainty that most of your users will go from your best hotspot to one that is outside your control, because even the biggest operator is still a minority player.

Adding subscribers from other hotspot networks will be a juggling act, financially. It will be necessary to work out how much extra traffic you get (and the costs associated with this) against how much extra income you get from other service providers when their users log onto your network.

What remains to be sorted, it seems, is a universal smartcard carrier - at the moment, the SIM card is the only possible authentication device, and it's by no means universal. Most smartcards are credit card sized, and almost no GSM phone now accepts SIM carriers of that size.

Two quotes: "Transat is excited about the fast market potential that this cooperation can unlock in this developing market," said John Baker, Transat founder and CEO.

"This partnership is important as it ties into Gemplus' unfolding strategy to investigate new markets," said Philippe Martineau, VP Business Development Group, Gemplus. "The aim is to help the operator leverage existing roaming agreements while providing a consistent and secure service over GPRS and WLAN. The integration of Transat's solution with Gemplus' smart card expertise offers a minimum investment solution with seamless network integration that will offer tangible value to the Mobile Network Operator."

More information about Transat Technologies is available at http://www.transat-tech.com, and Gemplus at http://www.gemplus.com.

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