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Wi-Fi biz gears up for roaming offensive

Aims to attract service providers and their customers

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Wi-Fi roaming enabler RoamPoint is set to announce its first mobile phone network and hotspot operator partners next week when its so-called 'global roaming hub' goes live.

According to RoamPoint CEO, Leon de Beer, the company will announce partnerships with three major GSM networks and sufficient WISPs to offer roaming across 5000 hotspots.

Formed at the beginning of the year, RoamPoint was officially launched at the WLAN Event in London, today. The company essentially mediates between the mobile phone service providers and the hotspot network operators, handling authentication and billing. Its goal is to make it as easy for public hotspot users to roam from site to site as it is for, say, UK mobile phone customers to make and receive calls when they're overseas.

Wi-Fi providers are increasingly looking to attract the attention of large-scale customer 'owners', such as mobile phone companies, traditional ISPs and fixed-line telcos, rather than target punters directly. The theory goes that, rather than roll-out their own Wi-Fi hotspots, companies like these will partner with WISPs. The service providers get to offer their customers a branded access solution, while the WISPs' hotspots are exposed to a volume of users they could never hope to attract on their own.

And since service providers are likely to want to partner with a number of WLAN operators, in order to offer their own customers more comprehensive Wi-Fi network coverage, they will need to put in place systems that can make roaming across those networks seamless for the user and for the network partners' billing systems.

RoamPoint isn't the only company operating in this space. Deutsche Telekom's carrier-level T-Systems is currently touting its Wireless Roaming Platform - it recently signed up Boeing's in-flight WISP, Connexion - to both WISPs and GSM providers, and Swiss company WeRoam is pitching for the same business.

Taking a less 'clearing house' style approach, UK-based WISP Broadreach Networks today launched its 'white box' Network access offer, as anticipated. It utilises virtual access point technology to provide a set of branded SSIDs. According to CEO Magnus McEwen-King, the arrangement will allow, say, Vodafone to offer its customers a network of hotspots revealed by a common SSID named after the provider.

All four companies - Broadreach, RoamPoint, WeRoam and T-Services - are essentially allowing service providers to aggregate various WISPs' hotspot infrastructure under their own access packages. With the focus of such service providers' Wi-Fi efforts on enterprise customers, that will line them up against established remote connectivity providers like iPass and Gric - which, not surprisingly, are already busily aggregating networks themselves.

Broadreach's USP centres on offering service providers unique SSIDs to allow their customers to find 'compatible' hotspots more easily. Its approach utilises technology from Colubris, so it's unlikely to remain unique for long.

RoamPoint, meanwhile, touts its special billing system, which calculates the cost to service providers and their WISP partners on the basis of the number of authentication requests routed through its roaming hub. That, claims de Beer, makes for "very modest" costs to the service provider and, crucially, costs that are separate from whatever commercial arrangement a given service provider has with a WLAN operator. "We don't interfere with the commercial relationships between WLANs and SPs," he said.

RoamPoint is an independently run spin-off from UK WISP The Cloud, and comes with Intel's recommendation - though not, admitted de Beer, the chip giant's investment dollars. Intel does, however, have a stake in Broadreach. Presumably The Cloud will be one of the WISPs RoamPoint will next week announce a partnership with, though we note that The Cloud already has a deal with WeRoam.

However, such efforts should soon provide an alternative to all the individual deals and system connectivity projects WISPs need to do now to enable roaming across each others' sites. RoamPoint hopes to support all their various billing and authentication systems, translating one WISP's protocols to another's, in a way that's transparent to the user. ®

Related Stories

Broadreach to bring major mobile telcos to Wi-Fi market
Boeing to offer roaming via in-flight WLANs
T-Mobile to offer seamless 3G, Wi-Fi data service
The Cloud enables SIM-based hotspot access
The Cloud drifts into Europe with Wi-Fi deals

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