Toshiba launches Wi-Fi 'hot spot in a box' project

The public access Wi-Fi hot spot market just got a little hotter as Toshiba Computer Systems Group (TCSG) formally launched a project to deploy 10,000 hot spots in the U.S. by the end of the year and Intel signed an agreement with the government of Singapore to support Wi-Fi roaming throughout Asia.

Oscar Koendersm, vice president of TCSG, a division of Toshiba in Tokyo, said in a statement yesterday that the company intends to become the "dominant supplier of 802.11b hot spot infrastructure and expects a considerable portion of the established public Wi-Fi market to be driven by hot spot operators and location owners capitalizing on the hot spot trend." Toshiba Canada last month announced a similar public access Wi-Fi service for Canada.

Toshiba plans to sell what it calls a "hot spot in a box," including a Wi-Fi access card, controller and associated electronics, to resellers who will in turn sell it to partners such as convenience stores with a modest markup. Toshiba has an agreement with WorkingWild, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based public access Wi-Fi company, that plans to install Wi-Fi service in 15,000 Circle K convenience stores owned by Houston-based ConocoPhillips.

Alan Reiter, an analyst at Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing, said Toshiba's low price of entry for hot spot hardware reflects the increasing commoditization of the Wi-Fi market, with client PC cards now priced at US$50 or less.

Adding to the growth of Wi-Fi, Intel next Wednesday plans to formally introduce its Centrino mobile chip family, which has Wi-Fi built-in. Gartner Group estimates that by 2005 more than 80 percent of professional notebook PCs will have Wi-Fi built-in, with a total worldwide base of 88.3 million Wi-Fi-equipped computers.

Reiter said Intel's desire to develop as wide a market as possible for Centrino-powered computers is the motivation behind the deal the company signed today with the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) to boost Wi-Fi roaming in Asia.

The IDA-Intel Wireless Hotspots and Network Interworking Initiative, will carry out an internetworking study to explore ways to connect fixed-line and wireless networks and conduct interoperability tests on networking equipment. Under the program, Intel will also train Singaporean engineers at its facilities in the United States.

"As Wi-Fi-deployed data services become increasingly important to the mobile industry, it is critical that end users be able to easily move between different Wi-Fi networks," said Pat Gelsinger, Intel's chief technology officer. Total investment in the IDA-Intel project is pegged at $2.25 million, mostly for manpower and equipment costs.

Intel has also backed Wi-Fi networks in the United States. Last December, it, along with AT&T and IBM, formed Cometa Networks, which plans to roll out public access Wi-Fi service in the top 50 U.S. markets.

Reiter said the "jury is still out" on Cometa, and Toshiba could well have the lead in a public access Wi-Fi market that still doesn't have a dominant player.

Sumner Lemon of the IDG News Service contributed to this report.

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