Wi-Fi at Wimbledon

By Gerry Blackwell

July 03, 2003

802.11, Anyone? This week's Wimbledon tennis tournament at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in London is the first major sporting event in Europe to feature wireless access -- and one of the first ever with free public access.

This week's Wimbledon tennis tournament at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in London is by no means the first major sporting event to feature on-site Wi-Fi hotspot services. It is the first in Europe, however -- yet another sign that Wi-Fi in Europe is on fire.

The service, provided by a joint venture between UK-based public Internet access firms Broadreach Networks Ltd. and WebPoint, is also one of the first anywhere to offer public Wi-Fi access at a sporting event as opposed to access for members of the media only.

For Broadreach, a fast-rising star in the UK Wi-Fi firmament, it's just the first of many special events at which it expects to provide high-speed Internet services. It will be involved in two more "high-profile cultural and sporting" events in the next couple of months alone, says CFO and co-founder Simon Weatherseed.

"I'd love to tell you about them, but the ink isn't even dry on the deals yet," Weatherseed says.

Talking about them now might also take away from the excitement at Wimbledon. If you're one of the lucky 50,000 this week who come to watch the stars of tennis in action on Centre Court -- and you bring along your Wi-Fi-enabled laptop or PDA -- you can slip out between sets and check e-mail, or upload the candid photo you just snapped of Serena Williams.

Actually, you can do that even if you're not Wi-Fi enabled because Broadreach and WebPoint also installed fixed wired Internet terminals.

Access is available in four areas around the grounds. Two of them, near the famous Long Bar near Centre Court and in the food court area near Court One, offer Wi-Fi access as well as fixed terminals.

Broadreach is using 3Com and Netgear access points and a WG-2100 Wireless Gateway from Bluesocket. to authenticate and route all wireless traffic on the site.

It may be hard to figure why anyone would want to go on the Internet in the middle of a thrilling pro tennis match, but apparently they do. This is the second year WebPoint has offered fixed access services at the tournament.

"We know certainly from the WebPoint stats on how many were using the fixed terminals last year that the demand was quite considerable," says Weatherseed. "By extension, we could see there would also be demand for wireless service."

Like stadiums and arenas in North America, Wimbledon has lots of corporate boxes -- or tents -- where companies butter up their clients by wining and dining them. Guests and hosts both need to keep in touch during the day, Weatherseed points out.

Usage results by mid week were slightly disappointing from a Wi-Fi perspective, though. Only "a couple of handfuls" of wireless users had logged on to the service each day, while several hundred a day were using the fixed terminals.

This is about exactly what Broadreach expects. The company was formed in 2000 to provide high-speed public Internet access, initially using fixed wired terminals.

"We could see the roadmap on Wi-Fi when we started," Weatherseed says. "But we're very much grounded in reality. We also realized it would be some time before there would be significant take-up of wireless -- and in fact, up until the end of July last year, it was illegal to offer commercial services over 802.11b in Britain anyway."

In the retail/consumer market Broadreach is going after, wireless will eventually overtake fixed access, the company believes, but that likely won't happen for at least five years. "For now, the only ones using wireless are the corporate market and other early adopters," Weatherseed says.

So Broadreach has a dual-technology strategy. Since the regulatory changes were made last summer, it has been rolling out both wired terminals and Wi-Fi hotspots -- to slightly over 50 locations so far, but with an ambitious target of 4,000 by the end of 2005.

A spin-off from the management consulting firm Arthur D. Little, Broadreach is well funded, with a roster of investors that include heavy-hitters such as BT (British Telecom), Intel Communications Fund and Virgin.

Despite its own OpenZone Wi-Fi play, BT sees Broadreach as complementary rather than competing. OpenZone is primarily a corporate offering, Weatherseed notes. Broadreach is a broader play and not even Wi-Fi-centric.

Special events is one of three primary areas of focus for the company. To this point it has concentrated on the other two: transportation/hospitality (with a heavy emphasis on rail) and retail/leisure sites. The 50 sites so far include some traditional hotspot venues, but also some that have yet to be tried on any scale in North America.

Broadreach has signed deals with key retail/leisure location owners, including Virgin Megastores (music, video and other Virgin-branded products and services) and LA Fitness and Holmes Place (both fitness center chains).

"Health clubs here have social areas and cafes and they're looking to increase the amount of time members spend in their clubs, and the amount of money they spend," Weatherseed says. "At the same time they're looking at providing additional services. That's what we're doing for them."

Broadreach has a deal with another Virgin company that operates trains and train stations in Britain's deregulated rail industry. In the first phase of the agreement, Broadreach is putting Wi-Fi hotspots (and fixed terminals) in Virgin-run rail stations. Euston and Paddington in London are already up and running, with stations in Birmingham and Manchester next, and more to come after that.

The partners are also working on a way to provide Wi-Fi access on moving trains, though they admit there are big technological challenges. Given the predominance of rail as a mode of transportation for commuters in the UK, figuring out how to solve those challenges is a priority for Broadreach.

If the company's hotspot location strategy seems slightly foreign to North American observers, its strategy for building a subscription base is only slightly less so.

Broadreach is not looking to build its customer base directly, but by partnering with non-competing Internet and mobile service providers -- something like Cometa Networks, the Intel-IBM-AT&T venture, Weatherseed notes.

So far it has deals in place with BT and Virgin mobile phone companies that give it access to some 4 million subscribers and associated other users. Those customers can log on to Broadreach facilities using their BT or Virgin IDs and passwords and can have the charges added to their mobile phone bills.

Just under 30,000 have signed up for Broadreach accounts and have used the service within the last three months, Weatherseed says. All are customers who have "charged up" their accounts by buying prepaid vouchers at Broadreach locations -- from one pound for 15 or 20 minutes to 10 pounds for a day.

When customers have an account, they can bank minutes. If they don't, the vouchers run out in real time.

The 30,000 does not include casual customers who use vouchers but don't bother to go through the process of setting up an account. It also doesn't include BT and Virgin subscribers who have set up accounts and arranged to have charges added to their mobile bills.

Nor does it include many Wi-Fi users, since Broadreach currently isn't charging for wireless service. It will probably start charging in the fall, Weatherseed says. So how many customers does Broadreach have? More than 30,000, it's safe to say.

Allowing customers, including Wi-Fi customers, to get access to its network with a voucher only, without creating an account is one of Broadreach's important differentiators, Weatherseed says.

"It's one of the beauties of our system," he says. "I can't understand why most of our competitors are doing it differently. We're very much focused on, 'Here's our network, you can get on anytime you want, you can pay as you go or you can use a third party account.'"

Wi-Fi users need neither client software nor account. When they launch their browser within range of a Broadreach hotspot, a log-on screen will pop up automatically.

The relationship with location owners is also different than it is for many North American operators. Broadreach typically owns the infrastructure, although some location owners may be given the opportunity to cover part of the investment, in which case their split of revenues is greater.

The revenue splits vary from location owner to location owner. Weatherseed won't even give a range.

Nor will he talk much about the company's finances. The current roster of investors has provided enough funding to move forward with Broadreach's business plan and it is not actively seeking additional funding.

"That's not to say that if someone came along with the right offer that might allow us to do things on a bigger sale that we wouldn't take it to our board of directors," Weatherseed says. "And they might say, 'Fine, let's bring in additional investors.'"

Even without additional funding, though, Broadreach seems to be on target to have, well, a broad reach in the UK Wi-Fi market.

Comment and Contribute
(Maximum characters: 1200). You have
characters left.