Public wireless proliferates

A barrage of public wireless access services based on the 802.11 "WiFi" standard have hit Australian shores, with new retail hopefuls unleashing a plethora of products and services into the marketplace this month.

One of the latest entrants to the public wireless services space, Melbourne-based provider Azure Wireless, says it has acquired $50 million in venture capital funding to create 50 "Hotspot" locations across Melbourne.

Azure's financial backing, supplied by Hudson Conway, is the largest amount of any of the local market's current players, the company claims.

Aiming to attract a broad user base, Azure is focusing on targeting subscribers via their ISP, and has announced a partnership with Primus Telecom to provide public access services to the telco's existing subscriber base. Azure CEO David Gold says his company has signed agreements with several other ISPs, which will be announced in the coming months. These ISPs cover around 70 per cent of Australia's Internet subscribers, he said.

Subscribers will be charged by the ISP for the use of the wireless service. In addition, Azure will be offering pre-paid registration options to casual users from each of its locations. Prices will be based on hour blocks of around $6.

The Azure network, which goes live on 1 October, will include coverage in AMP's Bourke Place and Collins Place, The Windsor Hotel and various cafes in St Kilda Road and the CBD. At least as many locations as in Melbourne are planned for the Sydney launch. The Sydney launch date has not yet been fixed, but Gold says he expects it to occur shortly after October.

This week also saw the entrance of new Sydney-based player Xone, which launched its pre-paid access service across North Sydney's Greenwood Plaza and select cafes in the Sydney CBD.

The service is backed by Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Cisco Systems and real estate company Mirvac. The company hopes to launch 40 wireless "zones" by the end of the year.

Access charges for the service are based on a combination of time spent online plus the amount of data downloaded. Users checking their e-mail can expect to pay about the same amount as a cup of coffee for the privilege.

Xone says it is in talks with several large enterprises such as Hewlett-Packard to provide public wireless access for employees, which will be billed directly to the company.

Both Xone and Azure have decided to invest and base their initial service offerings on 802.11b, a wireless local area network (LAN) technology which uses the 2.4GHz frequency band. 802.11b promises users up to 11Mbps access speeds for users up to 100 metres away from the access point. The 2.4GHz frequency is freely available for free public use in Australia.

Both companies are confident however, they can scale their network to accommodate 802.11a technology once demand for the service increases. The benefits of 802.11a is that it can provide up to 54Mbps access speeds to users using the 5Ghz band. The downside for users, is that 802.11a not interoperable with 802.11b.

Asia-Pacific move

While the introduction of new public wireless access services in the local market snowballs, existing wireless providers are also trying to carve out new niches for their businesses by venturing into the Asia-Pacific region.

In a bid to gain further market clout, Air Portal has announced a new agreement with Palette Multimedia to sell its Yellowspots pre-paid service in Australia via its own locations. Air Portal launched its own public wireless service across Sydney and Melbourne in July.

The alliance will also enable Air Portal users to use Yellowspot's public access points -- more than 450 locations across Asia.

Air portal marketing manager Michelle Neil says the company has also offered to extend the Yellowspot agreement to other local providers, and was pleased by the positive response and interest the offer generated.

To complement its Yellowspot plans, Air Portal will further extend its Australian network by establishing its presence in 25 Australian hotels by the end of 2002.

Long-standing carriers are responding to the glut in new public access services by embarking on wireless initiatives of their own.

Telstra signified its intentions to become a player in the public wireless space by acquiring a $3.3 million stake in SkyNetGlobal's wireless LAN service in August. The agreement will provide Telstra with access to 50 locations across Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.

SkyNetGlobal has already established its presence with its 802.11b wireless network, which connects to 27 airport lounges and 13 airports throughout the country and selected major hotels in CBDs.

Speculation is rife that Optus will also take the plunge into the wireless Internet sphere, although an official announcement is yet to be made.

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