GRIC Seeks to Rewrite Roaming Equation - Page 2

By Gerry Blackwell

September 07, 2001

Grab and go global
We asked Lewis if joining the GRIC Alliance provided an opportunity for ISPs to get access to Wi-Fi roaming services they could then turn around and offer their customers as a value-added service.

"By all means," he says. "The GRIC value proposition for service providers is that we're extending their global reach, we're giving them additional sources of revenue—they can charge a premium for the wireless services. And it's also a way to ensure customer retention."

There are, inevitably, a few little snags.

One is that Tier 3 players need not apply. GRIC's perception is that smaller ISPs don't provide the kind of quality of service its subscribers expect.

Second, GRIC doesn't have very many Wi-Fi locations anywhere yet—only about 65, Lewis says. And most of those are in Australia, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia.

At the time of writing, the company was in the final stages of negotiations with two other Wi-Fi public access service providers. Once—if—they're signed, the total number of Wi-Fi locations available would go to about 350. Most are still in Asia Pacific, though.

Asia in fact is GRIC's main focus for Wi-Fi right now.

Eastern focus
This is partly, we surmise, because the company's president and founder, Hong Chen, is from there and originally had the idea for GRIC because he was frustrated at not being able to get reasonably-priced roaming services while traveling on business in Asia himself.

Another reason, Lewis says, is that Asia, which doesn't have the kind of high-speed wireline infrastructure North America and Europe enjoy, has enthusiastically embrace wireless.

Many Asian airports and telecoms are currently in the early stages of deploying Wi-Fi roaming networks—in some cases with plans to cover whole cities, he says.

Another reason for the Asia Pacific focus, though, is that it's currently difficult for GRIC to get Wi-Fi coverage in Europe and North America.

This could be a problem. If it can't get adequate Wi-Fi coverage where American business people travel most it will certainly make GRIC less attractive to North American ISPs as a Wi-Fi partner.

In Europe, with the exception of Scandinavia, Wi-Fi doesn't have much profile at all.

This is partly, says Lewis, because the European industry over-invested in 3G licenses and doesn't have capital to invest in deploying Wi-Fi. Plus 3G is perceived as a potential alternative to Wi-Fi.

And it's partly that in some European countries regulations prohibit the use of 2.4GHz spectrum for public access applications—the UK and France, to name two. GRIC and others are lobbying European regulators to make changes.

North America is problematic because—well, because MobileStar and Wayport have a lock on a lot of the best locations for Wi-Fi access points. And so far MobileStar and Wayport have not been responsive to GRIC's overtures.

That may be changing, however.

Wire-free sustenance
"We have been and are in negotiations with both companies [MobileStar and Wayport]," Lewis says. "I can't tell you any details but, yes, we are talking with these companies because they do have footprints we'd like to utilize."

According to Lewis, both companies rebuffed GRIC's initial advances, believing they didn't need roaming users to make their businesses economically viable.

"We're saying to them, 'Let us give you free money.' They were not seeing it at that time," Lewis says. "But their tune has changed drastically since then, because of the economics of building out their networks."

He points out that Metricom, now in Chapter 11, thought the same thing as MobileStar and Wayport—and Metricom had about 50,000 subscribers compared to the 5,000 or so he believes MobileStar currently has.

"Five thousand customers will not sustain them," he says. "I believe all these companies are now starting to see this."

If MobileStar and/or Wayport cave and join forces with GRIC, it could bust the Wi-Fi public access wide open.

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