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Group seeks to make hot spot roaming a reality

Wireless hot spots have been springing to life all around the globe, but one fundamental problem lies in the path of large-scale adoption -- roaming. Right now, there is no simple way for, say, a Boingo Wireless Inc. subscriber to wander over to a T-Mobile USA Inc. hot spot and log on without a new subscription.

Now the Internet Protocol Detail Record Organization (IPDR), an industry group that addresses billing issues for wireless carriers, has developed a new set of specifications that would allow users to roam among different providers' hot spots while enabling wireless ISPs to track usage and haggle over the bill transparently on the back end. In this interview with, Aaron Hein, president of the IPDR, explains the proposed Wireless Local Area Network Accounting and Settlement (WLANAS) standard.

What are the biggest roaming and billing problems today?
With today's system, if you have one wireless ISP, say AT&T, and you stay at the Hilton, another [ISP] will try to sell you access. Every hot spot seems to have a different provider trying to sell to you. That is not very appealing to most business travelers. Most users don't go to any one place frequently enough to justify spending $30 a month for the service. If wireless ISPs want their services to become credible, they need to connect the dots behind the scenes. If the problem is fixed, the market could easily grow by a factor of two or three.

Mixed signals on standards
The IPDR's specification isn't the only proposed standard that would enable wireless roaming. Chris Kozup, an analyst with the Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group, said another such specification is backed by individual wireless ISPs, and may not work across the whole industry.

"The carriers are accustomed to doing this on their own and arranging their own roaming agreements," said Kosup. "And as carriers continue to get into the Wi-Fi market, they are likely to just do it on their own.

"But Wi-Fi is different. The technology brings in a host of smaller providers. Given how diverse the market is, there is potentially the need to have a standard and a single standards body for something like roaming," he said.

 What is the specification that you have ratified for billing and roaming?
To get the desired result, whenever I go to any hot spot, the system must recognize me as someone's customer and settle on a financial transaction. If I am with AT&T, I want the ISP that manages the hot spot I want to use to settle with AT&T for the transaction. The WLANAS standard addresses how the relationship between wireless ISPs is fulfilled, how they recognize who did what on the network and what finances should be exchanged. Why is your organization getting involved with standards for wireless hot spots?
A number of our members have been in the industry for 30 or more years, and they have seen the same patterns over and over. Initially, engineers try to get a new service to work. Then people come up with ideas for how make money from it. And then they start to figure out how to bill for the service. We are trying to solve this problem in a more timely way. Some wireless ISPs are working out roaming agreements, but they won't solve this problem by themselves. What ramifications will this specification have for hot spot use, particularly for businesses that want their employees to use hot spots?
Right now, many businesses are willing to reimburse individuals for hot spot use. But part of the advantage of offering universal access is that businesses can take more of a role in how to make these services a part of their infrastructure. If a business has to create relationships with six different providers in order to offer a public hot spot access service to its employees, the complexity would be too high. We hope the work we are doing will help to resolve that. How does it work behind the scenes?
The GSM community seems to be ahead of everyone else in having a standards-based solution for this. They have a billing settlement program in place that uses the TAP record, which is a record that contains all of the information that two carriers need to determine the network usage by a roaming user. The user is identified by his Subscriber Identity Module (SIM), [a tiny circuit board that identifies the wireless device and which the user must insert in his GSM phone to activate the device]. But there are many other ways of identifying users. Other services use a nested identity. Our organization wants so cater to GSM, CDMA and Wi-Fi users so we can bridge all the gaps.

We are looking forward to that kind of multi-network roaming. However, I can't discuss specifics, since the specification is not in the public domain yet. We want the industry to review this first, before it gets into the public domain. When will this standard start to have a real-world impact?
The best-case scenario is a year from now. Pessimistically, two years from now.


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 Your organization does not represent wireless ISPs. Is that a problem in terms of getting them to adopt the specification?
We are working with the Wi-Fi Alliance, which represents them to some extent. But right now, wireless ISPs don't really gather under any umbrella. Remote access provider Gric Communications Inc. interacts with a lot of hot spot vendors, and it is supportive of what we are doing. I am spending the next two months talking to other wireless ISPs about roaming. The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) has announced that it is interested in this initiative.

Other such initiates have fallen short because of the lack of manpower needed to make them happen. Right now, these companies are just trying to get their hot spots up and working, and are worrying about this issue later. We are hopeful about this initiative, and we have the solid background required to solve these issues.

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