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One of the greatest brakes on progress of cellular services was always the slow and painful path to inter-operator roaming. The complex issues surrounding billing, customer ownership and cross-payments continue to plague the roll-out of every new service, including most recently, MMS messaging. If WiMAX is to achieve broad uptake on an international scale, it needs to address roaming at an early stage, and a first step has been taken with the formation of the WiMAX Global Roaming Alliance (WGRA). Such a system, according to its founder, will enable 802.16-based services to stop “striving to make WiMAX appear complementary to 3G” and set themselves up as a direct price/performance challenge.

This ambitious claim was made by Doug Bonestroo, CEO of the first mover behind WGRA, service provider RemotePipes. The company aggregates Wi-Fi hotspots for use by subscribers to its partners’ – mainly cablecos – services, and recently added the SBC FreedomLink network to its footprint, which puts the total number of hotspots it uses at 15,000 in 36 countries. It is now offering the IPRoamer platform to pre-WiMAX operators too, the first being DockPoint of North Carolina.

It now hopes to put IPRoamer on the big stage by making it the technical basis of a roaming framework for WiMAX service providers.

Membership of the WGRA is initially free to encourage rapid uptake before the inevitable creation of rival systems, perhaps backed by bigger names, and is targeting vendors, service providers and enterprises or government agencies. Concerns of the Alliance will include streamlining authentication and accounting functions between network operators, as well as uniform processes between networks. Bonestroo said: "We realize that the larger telecom providers have a virtual lock on the 3G marketplace, and that the best way to counter that leverage is with a large group of partners in the US and around the world that are committed to standards-based WiMAX roaming. We will welcome any carriers that want to join the effort, but unlike industry groups striving to make Wi-MAX appear complementary to 3G, we will continue to view it as a directly competitive offering."

Referring to 3G’s history, he added: “By addressing these needs early in the WiMAX lifecycle, we can hopefully eliminate the substantial burdens experienced when other solutions have transitioned to being roaming enabled."

The WGRA is not intended to be another standards body, but rather steer toward consensus on the best available or developing standards, and push for uniform deployment and implementation of those standards once defined. “We believe there are few things worse than accepted standards that have been implemented in countless flavors throughout the supply chain,” said the alliance.

As well as RemotePipes and DockPoint, StoneBridge Wireless Broadband is the third founding member. It offers broadband wireless services in three states (Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan) and recently announced that it would expand into new regions using Alvarion’s equipment for access and backhaul.

The Alliance is starting from humble beginnings and is likely to draw its initial support from similar regional wireless operators, but whether or not it gains sufficient momentum to attract some bigger supporters, it is raising one of the most critical issues for WiMAX once it goes portable and mobile, and one that will have to be addressed – by WGRA or another initiative – more effectively than it was in the cellular world, if WiMAX is to be a viable alternative option in the 3G world.

Copyright © 2004, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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