Ireland’s hotspot eruption

26 Feb 2004

It is arguable that Wi-Fi is the most significant practical advance in computing for general business purposes since the laptop. Once the physical link to the office desk is broken, people can work for minutes or hours pretty well wherever they are. Add in broadband internet access and you have a potent combination to handle all of the normal business tasks – on the spot or by connecting to the local area network (LAN) back at base.

The application that is getting the most media attention is the daily rolling out of public internet hot spots in airports, hotels, trains stations and ferry terminals, convention centres and so on, with Esat BT, Eircom, O2 and so on now apparently doing their collective best to ensure that any location with a reasonable footfall of businesspeople will be plumbed with wireless internet access. Their not inconsiderable potential revenue will come either from monthly subscribers, who can then use any of the hot spots run by that service, or ad hoc payments that start at €9.99 per hour.

On the other hand, data speeds of 512Kbps or more are trouncing the performance of mobile internet access, with our current GPRS services offering no more than 170Kbps. When we have a 3G network that promises speeds will be no more than comparable with current Wi-Fi performance. This in turn promises speed advances with the next generation of technology. The pattern of business usage, however, is already very clear.

On the move you use a mobile service, standard GSM or GPRS, through a phone handset or with a card in the laptop, but essentially just for email because browsing the web is just too slow. Pocket PCs and personal digital assistants (PDA) also fit into that scenario and there are many users of both laptop and PDA or smart phone. Back in the hotel, airport, on the customer’s or business partner’s premises with courtesy access – or indeed when back at home base – Wi-Fi makes serious web-based work sessions possible.

It also has to be emphasised that wireless networking in the LAN – or substituting for fixed cabling entirely – is easily the major application of Wi-Fi technology. Overcoming the initial barriers of cost and security concerns, both now well overcome as the market and the technology has matured, Wi-Fi is effectively a mainstream technical component of any organisation’s networking. It is an invaluable cabling substitute in conference rooms or awkward situations such as old or historic buildings and temporary locations, for example project offices and exhibitions.

“Adoption of Wi-Fi has been accelerating,” says Ray O’Connor, country manager of 3Com. “Costs have come down and the technology has become more familiar. Probably most importantly, businesses now realise that security is not the problem that some scare stories have suggested. Indeed it never really was but today we can have encryption as standard that was military level until a couple of years ago while access can even be locked down to specific devices as well as user passwords,” he explains.

By the end of 2005 Eircom intends to have a total of 250 Wi-Fi hot spots around Ireland offering internet access both to its own subscription customers moving around the country and to casual users at an hourly or 24-hour rate.

“Naturally, we are targeting areas with a high footfall – hotels, airports and so on for businesspeople, shopping and town centres for the general market,” says Peter O’Shaughnessy ]QUERY[. “We will respond to the topography and the demand in each case so that we deliver a quality broadband product. That might mean multiple access points, increased bandwidth of whatever it takes to sustain the service level of our branded product.” Payment by users is on the basis of scratch card purchase of a number of minutes or online credit card payment.

The question of the host site sharing in the revenue stream is subject to competitive commercial considerations, O’Shaughnessy says, and he would not indicate what is the standard model or revenue split: “There are a number of business models that we can slice different ways. A hotel or hotel chains, for example, would command a different potential market from, say, a retail centre or coffee shop.” He accepts that the more obvious locations may also see the potential and opt to do their own thing. “The point is that Eircom offers a fully managed, branded service. Wi-Fi is technically still at a fairly early stage so ongoing support would be very important,” he adds.

Where a business wishes to set up its own label hot spot, Eircom offers enterprise solutions through its LAN Communications subsidiary. This would usually involve an organisation choosing to offer wireless internet connectivity to its own staff and extending that service – by payment or by courtesy – to visitors, clients, business partners and so on.

Esat BT, in this as in other telecoms areas, is Eircom’s hot-on-the-heels challenger. Its BT Openzone brand currently has 30 live hot spots in the State and 85 on the island. Planned rollout has targets of over 200 in the State and a massive total of over 4,000 in these islands by next summer.

“The public Wi-Fi programme is a strategic imperative for BT generally,” says Paul Convery, who is head of BT Openzone in Ireland. “We see ourselves as a leading Wi-Fi internet access provider, with any business user being able to take advantage of broadband access in a multiplicity of convenient locations and in an increasing number of countries. Our subscription clients can now take advantage of our roaming agreements with service providers in mainland Europe and the US, as well as the full installed base on these islands,” Convery explains.

He says that quite simply “Ireland should be Wi-Fi-enabled. It is essential to develop the network and then in tandem we will drive the specialist services, from the high-end business users to consumers of all kinds. In fact we intend to introduce a ‘pay-as-you-go’ subscriber service soon, similar to mobile telephony.”

The successful BT Openzone initiative is the provision of hot spots centred on 29 public telephone kiosks in Belfast and other urban centres in Northern Ireland. With a range of just 50 metres in these instances, the idea is that users can avail of the service in nearby cafes and retail premises or simply in their cars.

Convery is also coy about the details of BT Openzone’s business relationships with the owners-managers of hot spot sites. “We can broker a deal taking into account the necessary capital expenditure, target market and likely traffic, mix of subscription or ad hoc users and so on. It will usually be a three- to five-year contract, with appropriate provision for the partners to learn by experience as time goes on,” he says. Convery stresses the value to the partner of the fact that Openzone is a fully managed 24/7 service, attractively branded, from which the host site can derive a revenue stream with minimal investment or business alteration.

At least one vendor of enterprise Wi-Fi systems is inclined to play down the real value of that fully managed proposition, although acknowledging the value of a good brand in offering such a service. “If a hotel or shopping centre or whatever thinks it has the traffic to make a wireless hotspot viable as a customer service feature or a paying proposition, management should consider owning and managing the wireless service themselves rather than inviting a service provider to come in,” says O’Connor. “It is really not a big deal to get a contract specialist to install and set up a Wi-Fi network and gain all the financial benefits while keeping complete control over costs and performance and so on. The cost and benefit picture should be all in favour of the host site with the added benefit of wireless connectivity for their own staff.”

A service level agreement will take care of the maintenance and any problems just like any business LAN, O’Connor points out. While there may be occasional helpdesk issues these tend to be of a similar pattern and can be coped with by a little staff training and certainly should not significantly compromise the level of service offered to the public. With ADSL bandwidth now available at around €100 or so per month for a 1 Mbps service that could be shared by a couple of dozen users, a pricing level of €10 an hour and up from the big brand service providers suggests there might be a good margin for any site with the necessary footfall.

Currently third in the ranking of wireless broadband service providers, O2 Ireland has now set up 21 public hot spots including its prestige contract with Aer Lingus at Dublin Airport with special provisions for business travellers in the premier and gold circle lounges.

“Location choice is critical to the success of wireless internet service uptake and each location must not only complement our existing sites but also our existing GPRS and 3G networks,” says Orlagh Nevin, head of business solutions, O2 Ireland. “We have invested over €2m in our programme so far and we are in discussions with a number of site owners with the aim of broadening our range of locations. We do not see Wi-Fi hot spots as a threat to any of O2’s existing bearer services. Customers must be in a position to work remotely whether on the road, parked in a layby, staying at a hotel or at a conference,” she adds.

“They should be in a position to rely on a network provider that can accommodate all of their requirements, wherever they might be. So O2 is not on a market land-grabbing mission. We are keen to deploy hotspots in carefully chosen locations and provide a high-quality service to our own and other customers. Then we can either partner or roam with other service providers to offer a comprehensive solution. Awareness of the value of broadband internet access on the move is the key to takeup – after that Wi-Fi and hot spots are just different delivery channels in the mix,” Nevin adds.

The Wi-Fi services superhighway

All three major Wi-Fi hot spot services (BT Openzone, Eircom and O2) charge the same rates for casual users through pay-as-you-go scratch cards or vouchers (giving a unique access code) on retail sale at or near their hot spots: €10 for one hour within 24 hours of first log-on or €20 for 24-hour unlimited usage within 24 hours of first log-on.

Subscription rates and locations

BT Openzone:
The BT Openzone subscription options are: €120 per month for unlimited access or 300 minutes for €30 per month, subject to 12-month contract, through any Openzone hot spot in Ireland and the UK (4,000 sites by summer) and thousands of hot spots in Europe and the US through BT’s roaming partners.

Some hot spots include:
Dublin – Citywest Business Park, Dún Laoighaire Ferry Terminal, Esat BT Grand Canal Street, Media Labs and Insomnia coffee houses
Hotels – Conrad, Schoolhouse. Others in Cork, Limerick, Galway
Belfast – BT Northern Ireland head office, Balmoral conference centre, Bar Library, Central and Great Victoria Street stations, City Airport, Kings Hall, PC World branches.

Subscription: €80 per month for unlimited access through any Eircom hot spot

Some hot spots include:
Dublin – Croke Park, IMI
Hotels – Citywest Hotel, The Grand Hotel Malahide, Great Southern Hotel (airport), Red Cow Moran’s, Tallaght Plaza, Temple Bar, Trinity Capital and Skylon
Cork: Silver Springs Morans, Great Southern, Rochestown Park Kilkenny: Mount Juliet
Kildare: K Club
Galway: Great Southern, Corrib GS
Wexford: Talbot.

Contract plans: depending on anticipated level of usage, credit customers can opt for: fixed monthly charge of €10 plus Vat giving one hour free then €2 per 20-minute session and straight rate of €3 plus Vat per 20- minute session.

Some hot spots include:
Dublin – Dublin Airport, Guinness Storehouse, Heuston Station
Hotels – Bewley’s group, Buswells, Hilton, Jurys-Doyle group, Shelbourne. Others in Cork, Limerick, Galway, Westport

Plug and play hot spots for small businesses

Dozens or even hundreds of local hotspots for wireless broadband could spring up in pubs, shops and small hotels all over Ireland using the off-the-shelf product launched at the end of last year by BT Openzone. ‘Openzone in a Box’ is a plug-and-play hotspot device at just €499.95 ex-Vat that aims to accelerate the spread and appeal of Wi-Fi communication. Small retailers and service providers can now offer their customers high-speed internet access in their premises without having to make a large investment in technology.

Typical locations might be pubs, coffee shops, service stations, small hotels, leisure centres and golf clubs. The product has already proven to be a major success among smaller businesses in the UK. Users need to be on the premises or within an approximate 100-metre and each hot spot is clearly marked with the BT Openzone signage. Users can pay through pay-as-you-go scratch cards sold onsite while BT Openzone subscription clients can use the hot spot with a proportion of the per-minute costs going back to the site host.

Fixed wireless alternative

While the market fixation is still on Wi-Fi hot spots for casual broadband internet access, a quietly thriving alternative for business and residential users seeking a fast service is fixed wireless. Comparable in performance to ADSL, fixed wireless internet service providers offer essentially the same service as a public hot spot – just that it is for subscribers only and usually covers a wider area by using masts or high buildings for its access points. Irish Broadband is the commercial market leader after just a year in operation. “We started on the south side of Dublin City but have expanded our access points so that we intend to have our broadband service available in the whole Dublin metropolitan area no later than summer,” says Caitlin O’Connor, head of market development.

“We are currently in launch mode in Cork, where we can offer coverage of the entire city immediately , and are well advanced in our rollout plans for Dundalk, Drogheda, Waterford, Limerick and Galway. The business takeup has been excellent because there was such pent-up demand for broadband access but when ADSL finally got here many potential customers were frustrated by the requirements – distance from exchange, quality of line, engineers’ inspections and so on. We can and do offer speedy connection and a technically superior service – 512Kbps both upstream and down with a contention ratio of either 4:1 or 8:1 for business customers. Our standard package is €135 monthly with special small business offering at just €75 per month,” O’Connor adds.

Irish Broadband is also in discussion with commercial and institution managements that are interested in the potential of hot spots. The service and technical support will be from Irish Broadband while its potential partners can brand their own Wi-Fi service to clients. Similarly, the company is partnering with developers to offer Wi-Fi broadband access in IFSC apartment blocks for example.

By Leslie Faughnan