The Friday Interview: Alex French, Bitbuzz


17 Oct 2003

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A new networking phenomenon has hit the Irish marketplace in the form of Bitbuzz, a virtual Wi-Fi network provider that will install 150 wireless networks around Ireland and open it up to the customers of companies such as O2 and Vodafone.

In the mid-Nineties a new buzzword had entered the collective conscious of the Irish nation, e-working. So pervasive was this buzzword that it began to occupy government strategy documents and become part of an experimental new work style whereby individuals were given the facilities to work from home and open up new realms of possibilities in terms of their working and personal lives. As time wore on e-working began to occupy new realms of possibility alongside terms such as hot-desking and flexible working.

Bitbuzz, a start-up focused on deploying public wireless local area networks (WLANs), otherwise known as Wi-Fi in pubs, hotels lobbies and gathering places around Ireland, is planning to become the proponent of a new style of professional, the independent urban worker. The independent urban worker is usually armed with a laptop, a mobile and a WLAN card and prefers to work by gravitating between the home office and the company office, conducting their work in hotel lobbies and coffee shops.

In recent weeks, O2 entered into a deal with Bitbuzz to enable the mobile operator’s customers to access the internet through independent Wi-Fi hotspots located in several major Dublin pubs. Under the terms of the deal, O2 will be able to provide Wi-Fi access to customers on a network infrastructure other than its own. Bitbuzz’s network, which has been in trial for the past few months, officially launched last week and the service will be initially available in the Market Bar, the Globe, the Harbour Master, the Henry Grattan and the Schoolhouse.

According to managing director Alex French (pictured), some 20 hotspots will be in place by Christmas in public locations in Dublin and by the end of next year some 150 locations will be WLAN-enabled, making Bitbuzz the largest Wi-Fi network provider in Ireland. As an open network, Bitbuzz will allow telecom operators to use its infrastructure, instantly expanding their Wi-Fi coverage without having to invest in new equipment such as Wi-Fi base stations.

Bitbuzz is also engaged in discussions with Vodafone regarding the use of Bitbuzz locations and both parties expect to complete discussions in the forthcoming weeks. The chief technology officer at Vodafone, Fergal Kelly, told siliconrepublic.com that despite having 20 base stations active in Ireland, the virtual model such as that offered by Bitbuzz would encourage the operator to enter the Wi-Fi market in Ireland as it reduced the cost of investment.

According to Ovum research director, Richard Dineen, Wi-Fi will mature in 2004. “In 2004, as more devices are enabled and services mature, we will gain better understanding of Wi-Fi’s credentials to provide wireless internet and corporate remote access to a larger, broader market. In 2004, as testing and experimentation with roaming, service levels, tariff plans and payment options converge towards what one might consider ‘best practice’, we will then confidently be able to assess Wi-Fi’s long-term commercial prospects. No one has a crystal ball (apart from Harry Potter, perhaps), but I’m on the side of the optimists,” Dineen said.

In an interview with siliconrepublic.com, French said that there is considerable revenue potential yet to be exploited through public WLANs. “From our own perspective we provide the ability for network operators to provide a cost-effective solution to their customers. By providing a very easy, quick and lower cost way to expand their locations. This enables them to be more flexible on the retail price. The wholesale model has been successful in Europe and we are the first one here. The network operators are going to set the price for the users. The key thing here is that the pricing has to be done right. In the early days, providers were messing with prices, charging too much and we are trying to encourage people not to go down those routes.

“That’s why we think the future isn’t with operators building out their own disjointed networks, in a high-cost manner. We are in the early days of a new model where operators are rolling out shared sites. Very soon people will be charged for Wi-Fi on their phone bill whereby operators will have bundled it with voice. We will have 20 hotspots in place by Christmas and 50 in a matter of months. We will be placing them in key community areas and major routes where business people can pull in and update orders,” he says.

The early adopters of Wi-Fi, French says, will be two key groups of independent mobile workers. “One group is the business people travelling around Ireland and those who come from the UK and US. These are individuals who want quick access to information and need to link to the corporate virtual private network. These are people who normally work somewhere else, but come over for business meetings in hotel lobbies and pubs and want to be connected at all times.

“The next group is the independent urban workers. These could be consultants, journalists, IT workers, architects and engineers who don’t want to be home or in the office all the time. They are generally younger people with laptops with the latest Intel Centrino chips. I was an independent urban worker for a few years, working both in a multinational and as a consultant, preferring to meet people in and out of the traditional office environment. There was work to do and I didn’t want to be sitting at home all the time. I think that in Ireland we have a problem with broadband infrastructure, whereby it is difficult to get a cost-effective broadband connection at home. Public hotspots will facilitate the adoption and use of broadband in Ireland,” French explains.

As mobile phones penetrate 80pc of Ireland’s population, eclipsing the 50pc of population that use fixed lines, the question to be really asked is will wireless completely overtake fixed-line communications across the board?

“There are a lot of factors to be considered,” French says. “Who uses landlines or home phones anymore? In Finland the wired lines are on the decline. That comes back to what we said in terms of operators, especially fixed-line operators, providing bundles of mobile phone minutes, GPRS and Wi-Fi minutes in their billing structure. There is a movement away from being wired and location-based. In South Korea, Wi-Fi access is universal now. It is only a matter of time for here. Ireland has traditionally had poor telecoms infrastructure and there is a general move away from being office-bound all the time. Our motto is “Life without wires.” Wi-Fi is just one part of getting to a wireless future, just like 3G mobile services is a way of getting there.”

So far, the reputation of WLAN has been smeared by allegations that the technology is rife with security holes. However, French believes that these fears will abate as businesses become more familiar with the use of the technologies and, of course, as the 802.11x family of wireless networking standards matures.

“I think that if you are a business putting a Wi-Fi hotspot into a building, you have to ensure that your security is tight. For us it is different, this is a public service, we want as many people to use it. We certainly have tight security controls in place to ensure that only those who are authorised and pay for the service can use it. People can drive up outside and pay for it online if they wish. The need for war driving (searching for Wi-Fi networks to hack into) and war chalking (graffiti indicating the existence of a Wi-Fi network) will disappear. We encourage as many people to use the network as possible.

“These days the security of wireless networks and traditional wired networks are converging. If you are confident enough in the security arrangements of your bank and do it from home, then you’ll be fine. There is very little difference to do that over wireless. If you do bank from home, there is a chance that somewhere in that transaction the bank is already using a wireless link in the chain. We would encourage any business user to use a proper secure VPN just like over a wired network in the office. Increasingly, wireless technologies are moving toward wired equivalents,” French concludes.

By John Kennedy