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Issue #2003 - 02 (January 2003)
(Updated Jan. 16, 2003)


Next Evolutionary Step for Hybrid Networks Step to WiFi-WWAN Integration - authentication, administration, and accounting.

Source: Ziffdavis

Wireless Coalitions To Tackle Roaming By Mark Hachman - Ziffdavis
Having successfully established 802.11-based wireless chipsets in the marketplace, the wireless industry has begun looking at the next source of revenue: wireless roaming. To make roaming a reality, the wireless industry must address the same issue as its cellular counterparts: the AAA problem, or authentication, administration, and accounting.

Two possibly competing industry groups have been set up to do just that: Pass-One, an independent consortium; and WISPer, a body set up by the WiFi Alliance that will release a "best practices" paper sometime early next year.

While the roaming question could eventually spell an end to free 802.11 services, the issue is also seen as a stepping-stone to drive wireless into true ubiquity. But getting there will require R&D work in the boardroom, not just in the labs, executives said. In short, how to charge users for their bandwidth?

Getting wireless devices to talk to one another has been a technical hurdle that has been pretty much worked out, at least within the data-based WAN world. Voice-based cellular networks are working separately to facilitate their own roaming initiatives, spearheaded through the GSM Association.

The WiFi Alliance, representing the bulk of the wireless industry, overcame WiFi's technical issues through a certification program. New WiFi products are labeled with a "checkbox" system that describes the standard the product uses: 8021.11a, 802.11b, or a combination. An early idea was to use colors -"blue" products could talk to "blue" products, for example-but that was discarded, said Peter Claassen, vice-president of business development at Nomadix. "If it carries the WiFi brand name it certifies interoperability," said Blair Bullock, a network architect for iPass Inc.

While standards bodies have begun crafting new roaming standards and quality-of-service enhancements like 802.11e and 802.11i, attendees said that tried-and-true protocols, such as the Remote Authentication Dial In User Service (RADIUS) and TAPI protocols should instead be used or adapted.

"I don't think it's necessary to reinvent the wheel," Bullock said. Instead, the business side has been the real bottleneck, said Dan Lowden, vice-president of WavePort and a member of the business development committee of Pass-One, a small group of companies which has quietly worked to design a seamless roaming agreement between wireless ISPs (WISPs), which is due by the middle of the first quarter of 2003, Lowden said.

Pass-One only counts five companies among its members: Wayport, Open Point Networks, France's Wificom, Canada's FatPort, and Sweden's Tele2. "But more are interested in signing up," Lowden said. "We've just stayed in stealth mode, as we think it's the right way to just get the work done." 

Pass-One's goal is deceptively simple: to allow users to roam WiFi networks worldwide, using whatever pricing model the WISP decides, whether it be on a per-Kbyte or per-minute basis, or an unlimited use plan. The consortium was founded in January 2002.

"The whole theory is that if I have a user who is part of Waveport who wants to roam onto a fat port, he is also part of Pass-One," Lowden said. "He'll see a Pass-One welcome screen, which has… a roaming button. I use my WavePort user name and password; the Pass-One system sends a message to the WavePort user saying here's what the costs will be to connect." 

The system onto which the user is roaming, however, must be able to authenticate the user, measure his usage, and pass along the bill to the original WISP. The system must not only take into account companies in various parts of the world, but also everything from small WISPs to global "clearinghouses", or firms that have been set up as bridges between WISPs and who provide AAA services to each of them, said Ken Simpson, the chief technical officer of FatPort.

Even seemingly mundane deals like pricing plans can vary dramatically."It's cultural here in the U.S., where all-you-can-eat pricing plans are part of the frame of reference," said Phil Belanger, vice-president of marketing at Vivato Networks, and chairman of Pass-One. "In Europe it doesn't work like that."

Pass-One was also set up to avoid the $20,000 membership fees that are allegedly required of new members to WECA, now the WiFi Alliance, Simpson said.

The WISPer document has been somewhat of an industry secret, industry executives said. A spokesman identified it has a "best practices" document, and said the paper was due to be released in the "next couple of months", or around February, sources said. The WiFi spokesman declined to comment further on the status or contents of the document.

Eventually, users will want to roam between WiFi and cellular networks, using the slower but more ubiquitous cellular data networks for places like trains, where WiFi access points may be unavailable. PCtel, which began life as a manufacturer of host-based analog PC modems, has moved into wireless with its Segue platform, which it introduced in November.

PCtel's $2,500 Segue solution allows roaming between different 802.11 environments, as well as between WLANs and cellular networks such as CDMA 1xRTT and GPRS. A separate controller solution handles AAA processing. Intel, in addition, sees roaming as a critical element in its wireless future.

Intel already supplies the majority of flash chips in cell phones, many of the industry's microcontrollers, and will shortly add baseband chips to the mix, said Yung Hahn, director of marketing at Intel's R&D group within its mobile services division.

However, the bottom line will be a hurdle the wireless industry must vault again before cellular is added to the roaming mix.

 "The biggest thing besides business costs and the interoperability thing is who owns the user," said Dean Darwin, director of U.S. business development for RadioFrame Networks, a carrier. Regarding the revenue model required for such a network, Darwin said: "I think right now that model doesn't exist," he said. "Too many hands say I own the network and I should get paid."

MobileInfo Comments and Advisory: Mark Hachman of Ziffdavis has done a good job of raising real issues to the attention of wireless networking professionals. Technology solution to set up hot spots are now well known and interoperability problems are getting addressed very well too. Real challenge in widespread adoption would be the standardization of a common user interface that incorporates authentication (security), accounting (common billing records and billing formats across service providers) and administration of customer care services. First, this should be dealt within various wireless LAN hot spots consortiums, then extended to wireless network providers. Unfortunately, the wireless WAN big players are still wrestling with technology problems. It will be wise for Pass-One and WISPer should seek enough (not token) representation from the telecom industry. You need their input when you are doing data modeling work for billing records and associated databases.

Note: This news release may contain forward-looking statements within the meaning of section 27A of the Securities Act of 1933 and section 21E of Securities Exchange act of 1934 in USA. Similar provisions exist in other countries. There is no assurance that the stipulated plans of vendors will be implemented. MobileInfo does not warrant the authenticity of the information. Readers should take appropriate caution in developing plans utilizing these products, services and technology architectures.  All trademarks used in this summary are the property of their respective owners.

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