Wi-Fi Remote-Access Options Expand

Service providers are expanding the global reach of their Wi-Fi and wired ethernet networks to offer users better remote access when traveling.

AT&T recently announced that it nearly quadrupled its wireless LAN (WLAN) locations and tripled its wired ethernet locations in the past 12 months. Last year, Sprint added scores of hotspots to bring its total number of Wi-Fi locations up to 14,000. And MCI says it will more than double its Wi-Fi footprint by May.

"The numbers only mean something if the hotspots are in useful locations for users," says Lisa Pierce, a vice president at Forrester Research. If a service provider has 10,000 hotspots but most are in cafes and not in airports, that's not going to be as meaningful to a business customer, she says.

Big Players Participate

Service providers are turning to Wi-Fi to offer users secure, remote access to corporate networks in more geographic locations than ever. AT&T has expanded the number of WLAN, or Wi-Fi, hotspots available to customers to just more than 9000, almost two-thirds of which are in the United States. The carrier now also has 1551 wired ethernet locations.

"In February 2004, we had just above 3000, combined," says Rick Gretsch, director of product management for global IP at AT&T. At that time, the carrier had about 2500 Wi-Fi hotspots and 500 wired ethernet locations, and altogether it has added about 6600 hotspots and about 1050 wired ethernet locations over the past year.

The majority of the new Wi-Fi locations come from AT&T's expanded relationship with GoRemote Internet Communications, Gretsch says. AT&T does not own or operate any of its hotspots. "That's a business we decided not to be in," he says.

While AT&T owns and operates a small number of wired ethernet locations, the majority of the 1551 broadband locations are supplied through third-party agreements.

Gretsch says AT&T will continue to grow the number of hotspots and wired ethernet locations.

"We will focus a lot of our attention on travelers and places they go this year," Gretsch says. That includes hotels and airports. Today, AT&T offers Wi-Fi access in 70 airports, which include 17 of the 20 busiest, he says.

The carrier says it's primarily expanding in the larger cities around the world where business users most frequently travel.

New Service Plans

AT&T also is pitching new service plans, and is offering Wi-Fi, dial-up, and wired ethernet service bundles.

The first bundle includes 50 hours of dial-up, two wired ethernet days, and four Wi-Fi sessions--all for $20 per month, per user. The second bundle includes 50 hours of dial-up, four wired ethernet days, and eight Wi-Fi sessions--all for $35 per month, per user. The third bundle includes 100 hours of dial-up, five wired ethernet days and 10 Wi-Fi sessions--all for $38 per month, per user.

The carrier also capped its hourly charge, which is yet another billing option for users. If users choose the pay-as-you-go option for their Wi-Fi service, they will be charged $5.25 per hour. Once customers have been on a Wi-Fi connection for four hours within a 24-hour period, they will not be charged beyond the four hours. In other words, users will not be charged more than $21 per day if they go with AT&T's pay-as-you-go package.

Where AT&T has opted not to support any of its hotspots in-house, Sprint is taking a slightly different route. The service provider is building and supporting its own WLAN access points in airports, says Wes Dittmer, director of WLAN services at Sprint.

Sprint is offering Wi-Fi service in four airports today--Kansas City, Louisville, Salt Lake City, and the William P. Hobby Airport in Houston. Three more will come online by June, Dittmer says. But most of its 14,000 hotspots stem from roaming agreements with other service providers such as SBC.

While Sprint has the largest number of hotspots, it does not have a comprehensive remote-access service to offer business users--yet. Sprint is expected to announce a new service called Extended Workplace as early as this month.

"The service will include CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), WLAN and dial-up remote access options," Dittmer says. Unlike AT&T or MCI, Sprint's service will offer users a mobile wireless service component over its Sprint PCS network. Dittmer says Sprint worked with a third-party software company to develop a client that will let users access the multiple services.

AT&T and MCI's remote-access offerings also offer one client for multiple access services, but neither offers mobile wireless.

A single client that's easy to use and lets users sign on to multiple access technologies is most important to business users, Forrester's Pierce says. Whether they're using Wi-Fi or wired ethernet to access their corporate network isn't the main concern, she adds. "What's more important is that the procedure to get online is uniform from a customer perspective," she says.

Dittmer says that Sprint's offering will not include wired ethernet, but that Sprint will offer a custom feature where users could access other services such as ethernet, when in a hotel, or DSL, from home.

MCI also works with a host of aggregators, such as Boingo Wireless and Wayport, to create its network of 5220 Wi-Fi hotspots and 700 wired ethernet locations. Through its partners, MCI plans to bring on board thousands of hotspots in May, says Kevin Gatesman, senior manager of emerging technologies at MCI. "We'll be going up to 13,700 hotspots," he says.

MCI also plans to release a new version of its client software and new tiers of service for its business customers at that time.

This story, "Wi-Fi Remote-Access Options Expand" was originally published by Network World.

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