Hitting the hotspot

28 Nov 2002

Irish-based telcos, including Eircom, are beginning to trial public wireless LANs, or hotspots, in hotels, airports and coffee shops around Ireland.

The only time I ever got to actually use a wireless local area network (WLAN), I had to travel all the way to Berlin. But it was a liberating experience as far as computing goes, and I was able to enjoy surfing the web wirelessly at speeds ranging from 2MB per second up to 11MB. All over Germany, hotspots were appearing in Starbucks coffee shops and airports, mirroring a trend already well established in the US.

WLANs are currently enjoying widespread popularity among large companies, SMEs (small to medium-sized enterprises) and small home offices in Ireland, for obvious reasons. The wireless LAN standard, known as 802.11b or the more acceptable moniker Wi-Fi, allows individuals to use devices such as laptops and personal digital assistants (PDAs) to enjoy speeds of up to 11Mbps within a 500sq ft radius, using a wireless LAN base station that costs around €500 and network cards that cost less than €50. For firms that want fast networking without having to rip out skirting boards or spoil listed buildings, such flexibility and cost advantages are enticing.

However, up until now there have been no public hotspots in Ireland that allow individuals on the move to enjoy fast web access or download their emails over a hot cup of coffee. The only individuals who have had such privileges have been ‘war drivers’ or ‘net stumblers’ who travel around cities and hack into corporate WLANs. According to research carried out by the Dublin Institute of Technology and Enigma, some 378 wireless hotspots are currently active in Dublin today, with usage expected to soar over the coming year. However, all of these are privately owned by businesses and individuals.

This is about to change. Eircom is leading the way for local telcos aiming to establish public wireless hotspots at a variety of public locations with the aim of developing a business model in partnership with hotels, airports and other public venues that see value in allowing individuals to surf the web on their premises. Among the business models being mooted is a model of pre-paid scratch cards that individuals with WLAN-enabled laptops or PDAs can buy and get a once-off username and password that gives them 11Mbps-speed internet access on the spot.

According to Eircom’s Peter O’Shaughnessey, who is managing the trial of public hotspots at several locations throughout the country, the scratch cards will be just one model that will evolve to becoming a fully-fledged subscription service for individuals and businesses. The plan after that is to establish roaming agreements with overseas telcos such as Telia and Deutsche Telekom whereby Irish business travellers who subscribe to Eircom’s service can access the service on any of their public hotspots throughout Europe, and eventually the world.

O’Shaughnessey acknowledges that no effective business model for public hotspots has been successfully developed anywhere in the world, but the objective of the trials and partnership arrangements going forward is to develop a business model that works. Market research is on his side; more laptops and bundled software now support WLAN as PC manufacturers integrate WLANs with their notebook computers as the cost of WLAN equipment comes down. According to research firm International Data Corporation, western European WLAN shipments are expected to grow from US$230m in 2000 to approximately US$806m in 2005. Microsoft sees WLAN as an important element of its .Net strategy and is seeking to position its software as the dominant standard for WLAN access. Developments are under way that will increase WLAN speeds from 11Mbps to 54Mbps.

In addition to Eircom’s plans to offer public wireless LAN services, the company is promoting the establishment of WLANs to connect to the internet at home using DSL lines as backhaul and fitting a WLAN ‘mini base station’ in the house, allowing the user to connect to the web without wires from any room. According to Eircom, the company is in the process of evaluating suitable vendors to bundle a wireless LAN service with DSL sales and expects to have an offering in place by the first quarter of 2003.

O’Shaughnessey explains that Eircom’s foray into public and private hotspots echoes a trend amongst its international peers. “Telia has done this in Sweden and is leading the vanguard in Europe and BT in the UK has just launched such a service. Our public hotspot plan will focus on the business user initially, whereby hotel guests that need wireless access to the internet or to their corporate VPN (virtual private network) can buy a scratch card that will give them varying degrees of access ranging from an hour to 24 hours. Over time we believe that hotels throughout Ireland and the world will offer this as a standard service,” he explains.

According to O’Shaughnessey, Eircom envisages launching the public hotspot service formally between March and May of next year. “We want to tweak all the technical issues before we launch, and hence the trial. There are various technical and commercial issues that we have to get right. There are clever things that we can do, such as the hotspot is capable of overriding whatever WLAN configuration there is on a laptop, in order to allow it to communicate with the hotspot without having to go through a load of manual changes on the machine.

“Our aim once the service is up and running and a suitable business model is in place is to forge agreements with other telcos throughout the world to establish roaming agreements akin to those in the internet service provider and mobile service provider markets so that anyone who travels can find a hotspot anywhere and get their internet and email. This is the route we will take and we realise that you have to walk before you run,” O’Shaughnessey concludes.

By John Kennedy