Wi-Fi sets new standards

30 Mar 2005

Over the last five years wireless networking has grown from being an expensive optional extra to an essential IT tool. There are many reasons for this. Apple’s introduction of a cheap base station and network card in 2000 may have started the trend, but it was undoubtedly the establishment of the Wi-Fi standard — to allow equipment from different vendors to work with one another — and Intel’s creation of the Centrino chipset for laptop computers that incorporated wireless networking on to the motherboard, that kept it going.

There are several types of wireless networking standards but the most commonly used are under the IEEE 802.11 category. The two most commonly used standards in Europe are 802.11b and 802.11g. Both operate in the 2.4GHz spectrum, which does not require a licence. 802.11b is the older of the two and provides data transmission speeds of up to 11Mbps. The more recent 802.11g uses the same frequency but offers speeds of up to 54Mbps. Fortunately, both standards are inter-compatible so a laptop equipped with an 802.11b network card can communicate with a network based around 802.11g, albeit at the lower data rate.

The technology received a massive boost when Intel developed the Centrino chipset for laptop computers. Part of the Centrino specification includes wireless network connectivity. Up until then, the only way of getting this type of connectivity was to add a wireless network card and most of these had an inconvenient antenna that stuck out and very often got broken off.

It didn’t hurt that a number of the major equipment manufacturers came together to form the Wi-Fi Alliance, which guaranteed that equipment bearing the Wi-Fi brand would talk to one another no matter who the manufacturer was. The name Wi-Fi, incidentally, stands for Wireless Fidelity and was originally meant to indicate equipment compatibility.

Most of the wireless networks in Ireland are privately owned and can be found within businesses that appreciate the flexibility that a cable-free network can bring. However, publicly accessible access points, also known as hotspots, have proliferated in recent years. These are found in hotels, cafes, pubs and other places around Ireland. So long as you are within range of the hotspot, you can surf the web or check your email just as if you were at home.

At the moment there are several hotspot operators in Ireland. Esat BT, O2, Bitbuzz and Eircom are the four largest. Their network is aimed principally at business travellers both those coming in from overseas and those based in Ireland. “The transport hubs and larger hotels are the focus for us,” says Paul Convery (pictured), head of Esat BT Openzone. “We see incoming travellers as being the early adopters. However, the Irish business market is also a focus for us.” According to Convery, it was access to the latter market that spurred Esat BT to do a deal with O’Brien’s Sandwich Bars and with Maxol service stations.

According to Alex French, operations director of Bitbuzz, however, there is a third market segment to be addressed — students. “Students are a much maligned market segment,” he says. “But we are seeing a large number of students using our hotspots, especially graduate students who have disposable income, time and laptops. Look at the number of courses that require Wi-Fi-enabled laptops for entry. These are people who are the real digital generation and are used to having internet access at all times and when they are out and about they expect it in bars and cafes.”

The one drawback of having multiple providers, however, is that you have to have separate subscriptions and if you go overseas the problem is magnified because there are more suppliers.

Esat BT is the most flexible operator when it comes to overseas travel. The Openzone subscription is valid in both the UK and Ireland and the company has bilateral roaming arrangements with several operators in Europe and the US and is a member of the recently formed Wireless Broadband Alliance.

In addition, there are international aggregators such as Trustive and WeRoam who purchase bandwidth from local providers such as Bitbuzz.

Within Ireland, however, roaming is not yet an option. However, change may be on the way. According to Andrew Fordham, head of business marketing at Eircom Retail, the company is looking into the matter, and while O2 spokeswoman Emma Hynes could not go into specifics for commercial reasons, she did say that in the not too distant future, a subscriber to any network should be able to use any hotspot in the country.

But does it make sense to have multiple networks? While Eircom, Esat BT and O2 spokespeople did not see any pressure towards consolidation of networks, French takes a different view.

“We’ve always felt that the market will segment itself into those that run the hotspots and those that own the customers,” he says.

“Really we are a company that is focused on providing high-quality hotspots. What we expect to happen, and 2005 is the year it will start to happen, is you will start to see a lot more roaming agreements between mobile operators and people such as us. So people won’t buy Wi-Fi as a separate subscription or through vouchers. It’s going to be something you buy as part of your monthly telecoms package. This is always the way we thought the market would develop and our place in that is to run good high-quality hotspots and wholesale it to operators that want to own the customer.”

By David Stewart