Australian telcos play waiting game with WLANs

Unlike overseas counterparts, Australian telecommunication operators are taking a wait and see approach to public access wireless LAN (WLAN) networks.

However, Mario Davoli, technology strategist for Ericsson Australia, believes there will be an increase in public WLAN hot spots within the next 12 months and operators will move towards offering the service within this time period.

IDC forecast deployment in visitor-based networks such as airports and hotels - hot spot deployment of WLANs - will be one of the main factors to drive WLAN adoption.

However, both Telstra and Optus told Computerworld they have no plans in place to offer public access wireless LAN (WLAN) networks.

A spokesperson for Optus said the telco was looking at WLANs from a technology and business case point of view, but had no "plans at the moment" to enter this market.

Ross Pow, an analyst with consultants Analsys, said while mobile operators could lose up to 10 per cent of data revenues to WLAN services, they are also among the best positioned to take advantage of the service if they act early.

Davoli agrees. With multi-mode devices entering the market, he foresees operators will offer public access WLAN services, which would work seamlessly with the carrier's existing GPRS/3G network, thus allowing users continuous access.

Roaming, which has made GSM so popular around the world, is a crucial link still missing in WLAN.

"We foresee people will use WLAN hot spots and when they exit the zone, their connection will seamlessly switch to GPRS or 3G," Davoli said.

He said operators will want to offer WLAN in conjunction with 3G and GPRS services, because this will be a new "access point", each technology has its own advantages and each would be tariffed differently.

"I believe that densely populated areas would benefit from WLANs, for example."

WLANs are designed to cover small areas and are suitable for small hot spot locations, while GPRS/3G offers broad umbrella coverage.

Although WLAN hot spots have been slow to take off in Australia, they are sprouting up across Europe and the US mainly because the technology is standardised, licence-free and relatively cheap to deploy.

Germany already has around 475 WLAN hotspots, with as many as 1000 expected by the end of the year.

The UK's biggest phone company, BT Group announced in April it plans to launch the UK's first public access WLAN network and sell WLAN services.

BT said it aims to have about 400 WLAN hot spots operating by June 2003, increasing up to 4000 sites in mid-2005. The company said talks are under way with a large coffee chain, as well as many of the leading retailers and property owners to install hot spots on their premises.

Davoli said within enterprises WLANs will become an "adjunct" to the fixed intranet.

"Only people within the organisation will be able to access the intranet via the WLAN. But I foresee companies will set up semi [WLAN] hot spots offering Internet access in meeting rooms for example."

Davoli believes the lack of end-user devices, like laptops with built in wireless connectivity, is holding back the pervasiveness of WLANs hot spots.

"[Also] IT is still concentrating on the fixed way of doing things … they need to move ahead with wireless technologies."

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