NTT plans dual-mode public wireless LAN in Tokyo

NTT Communications in Tokyo has announced plans to start the world's first public access wireless LAN network that allows users to connect using either the entrenched 802.11b protocol or the new, higher-speed 802.11a protocol.

NTT said it will launch its Hotspot public access wireless LAN service at about 200 Tokyo locations on May 15, ramping up to 1,000 such areas by year's end. It will charge a one-time application fee of 1,500 yen (US$11.65) and a monthly access fee of 1,600 yen (about $12.30) for service.

That's a bargain compared to similar service in the U.S. Boingo Wireless Inc. in Santa Monica, Calif., charges $24.95 per month for unlimited access on any 10 days in a month or $74.95 per month for unlimited access every day. Boingo provides access at hundreds of locations throughout the U.S., while the NTT service is currently limited to Tokyo.

The number of public access wireless LAN nodes NTT plans to have in operation in Tokyo by year's end comes close to the roughly 1,200 access points currently in operation in the U.S. But it lags far behind the 25,000 planned for South Korea by year's end.

NTT wireless LAN users will initially need different PC cards in their laptops to access the 802.11b service, which operates in the unlicensed 2.4-GHz frequency band, and the 802.11a service, which operates in the 5-GHz frequency band. Brian Grimm, a spokesman for the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA), an industry group, predicted that manufacturers will eventually sell dual-band PC or PDA cards capable of operating on both protocols.

Though the dual-band approach is innovative, NTT will experience a slow ramp-up of its 802.11a service due to lack of subscriber equipment. Alan Reiter, an analyst at Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing in Chevy Chase, Md., called the 802.11a standard "a work in progress. The equipment is moving out very slowly."

Grimm said that as far as he knows, only Atheros Communications Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif., and Cisco Systems Inc. manufacture 802.11a chip sets, with PC cards sold by only a handful of companies, including Intel Corp., Proxim Inc in Sunnyvale and Japan's TDK and Sony Corp. WECA has more than 140 members signed up to develop products based on the 802.11b standard.

NTT will soon face competition in the public access wireless LAN market. Japan Telecom Co. is running trials based largely around hot spots at railway stations, and cellular network operator NTT DoCoMo, which recently launched a third-generation cellular service, is getting in on the game. It wants to use its network of existing cellular towers to install a wireless LAN network.

Martyn Williams of the IDG News Service in Tokyo contributed to this story.

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