Hotspots and hot Java

21 Nov 2002

Public wireless local area network (WLAN) hotspots are popping up all over Europe today, in airports, hotels, coffee shops and shopping centres, echoing a trend that has exploded in the US over the past year, enabling business travellers with WLAN-enabled laptops and PDAs (personal digital assistants) to sip their coffee and download email and even access the corporate virtual private network (VPN) at their leisure.

At present, there are some 378 wireless hotspots active in Dublin today, according to the Dublin Institute of Technology and Enigma research, but these are privately owned and the only people who can access them are skilled hackers or ‘war drivers’ capable of taking advantage of the security weaknesses inherent in the present WLAN standard, 802.11b.

This is about to change in a big way as telecoms such as Eircom and a variety of other communications firms are about to partner with hotels and airports to provide business travellers and anyone with a laptop and the right tools to access the internet and email through public hotspots. WLANs, otherwise known as Wi-Fi, enable individuals to use devices like laptops and PDAs to enjoy speeds of up to 11Mb per second within a 500-foot radius, using a €50 network card. It is believed that within five years, some 91 million different technology devices will be capable of connecting to these mini-networks and research by Analysys predicts that some 21 million Americans will be using WLANs by 2007.

The wireless revolution is only in its infancy; more laptops and bundled software now support WLAN as PC manufacturers integrate WLAN cards into their notebook computers. Microsoft, for example, sees the technology as an important element of its .net strategy and is seeking to position its software as the dominant standard for WLAN access. Developments are underway that will increase WLAN speeds from the present 11Mb per second up to 54Mb per second.

Eircom sees public WLANs as an essential element of its wireless strategy and has named the O’Callaghan Hotel Group, the Red Cow Moran Hotel, The Silver Springs Moran Hotel in Cork and Citywest Hotel in Dublin among the first hotels in Ireland to introduce public wireless hotspots in Ireland as part of a trial. The company is planning to add wireless hotspots in a variety of other venues such as airports and coffee shops as part of a plan to identify a suitable business model.

The move by Eircom is in tandem with similar moves by telecoms operators in other European countries such as Telia in Sweden and Deutsche Telekom in Germany, with the ultimate endgame of establishing roaming agreements and services where by business travellers will pay a monthly subscription to connect to the internet in hotspots in their own countries and abroad. The initial business model being mooted by Eircom is to create a prepaid scratch card that allows an individual who wants to connect to the internet to buy the card at any hotel desk or shop that will give them a username and password for a once-off connection.

Building on this, Eircom is also looking at pushing WLANs to be used in the residential market, whereby home owners can have a WLAN ‘mini base station’ to connect to the internet from anywhere in their house and enjoy 11Mb access, using DSL (digital subscriber lines) as backhaul (ie, the access mechanism). The company is understood to be evaluating suitable vendors to bundle a WLAN service with DSL offerings by Q1, 2003.

Peter O’Shaughnessey, Eircom’s programme manager in charge of the public hotspot trials, explained: “Our plan is to partner with locations like hotels that wish to offer wireless hotspots as a value added service. To begin with, we envisage offering prepaid scratch cards on a point-of-sale basis. In parallel with that we will be experimenting with other models like subscription and will target that at our own corporate customers. This would particularly suit sales people on the road. Over time a lot of hotels will offer this as a standard service.

“Our aim is to evaluate the technical and commercial issues involved so that we can hit the ground running. For example, there are clever things that we can do, such as allowing your laptop to communicate with the hotspot without having to go through a load of manual changes on the machine or override software.

“Since the service is up and running and a suitable business model is in place our plan is to forge agreements with other telcos throughout the world to establish roaming agreements akin to those in the internet service provider (ISP) and mobile service provider markets, so that anyone who travels can find a hotspot anywhere and get their internet and email,” O’Shaughnessey said.

Eircom is not alone in its WLAN aspirations. Esat BT has been shortlisted for funding from the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to subsidise its own rollout of public hotspots. According to Kevin Conroy, head of technology strategy at Esat BT, BT Northern Ireland has already started trialling public hotspots in hotels, airports and railway stations. “Esat BT currently has over 50 corporate WLAN installations in place and we use it throughout our own company. The main issue with WLANs is to identify a suitable business model. We believe the real money is in the corporate market rather than public hotspots. However, the numbers of people wishing to avail of public hotspots are growing due to the fact that the technology is so cheap and available. We want to cover every aspect. We have to be cautious, yet don’t want to miss a trick. The technology is compelling but getting the business model correct is vital.”

Pictured: Marketing director of Eircom, Brendan Nevin, samples a wireless hotspot