Wi-Fi Roaming: Euro-style

By Gerry Blackwell

February 05, 2004

Picopoint's Global Broadband Internet Access is a novel approach to cracking the public hotspot roaming nut.

You need a playbook or some kind of schematic diagram to keep track of the Wi-Fi hotspot industry these days.

In mature industries, the players fit clearly and neatly into one of a few roles or functions. However, this industry is still forming, and everybody has a slightly different take on how it will turn out, and what the roles are or will or should be.

This is especially true as it relates to the crucial issue of roaming.

Picopoint, based in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, has it's own take on roaming. Picopoint started out 18 months ago offering its Gatekeeper back-office platform to wireless ISPs (WISPs) and hotspot network operators as an outsource solution. The company has dozens of Wi-Fi network operator clients worldwide now, most in Europe.

Then last year, at the request of clients, it launched Global Broadband Internet Access (GBIA), an international roaming network of independent hotspot operators -- not just its own clients, but any hotspot operator.

GBIA is also a service mark which Picopoint hopes will do for Wi-Fi users what Visa and other bank network logos do for traveling users of automatic teller machines (ATMs) -- the same thing the Wi-Fi Alliance hoped to do with its Wi-Fi ZONE program.

Picopoint is in effect a broker between two sets of industry players. It terms one set service providers and the other network providers. In some cases, it's an artificial distinction, but in the context of GBIA and the brokerage service Picopoint is providing, it makes sense.

The service providers, of which there are three so far, have a strong focus on providing service to subscribers and will typically already have large subscriber bases. They may also -- and in all cases so far, do -- operate networks of one sort or another themselves.

Picopoint's three GBIA service provider customers are: KPN, the former Dutch PTT and a major mobile operator in the Netherlands; E-Plus, the third largest mobile network operator in Germany; and Internet Solutions, a multi-faceted South African provider of e-business infrastructure and services.

The network providers are WISPs, hotspot operators and property owners that manage and operate Wi-Fi infrastructure -- anything from a few to a few hundred Wi-Fi hotspots. They may also, and in most cases do, provide service directly to subscribers, but typically only locally or regionally.

There are 20 of them so far, with two to three being added each week. Ten new deals were under negotiation at the time of writing. As of mid-January, the combined total of hotspots in GBIA's "virtual network" was 2,512. Picopoint expects to have 10,000 available by year-end 2004. For instance, Airnyx AG recently announced that 4000 Agip gas stations in Germany would soon be equipped as hotspots, all of which will be part of the GBIA mark.

The company's initial focus is Europe -- then North America. It has U.S. and Caribbean partners and hotspots now and is working on more. It will begin to tackle Asia-Pacific in the second quarter of this year and already has providers in both South Africa and Tanzania.

"The service providers are buying air time from the network operators and they're doing it through us," explains Picopoint marketing vice president Marco Vis. "Which in my opinion makes sense."

The reason it makes sense is central to Picopoint's strategy with GBIA. The company believes that Wi-Fi players lack the capital to be effective in both developing subscriber bases and building networks.

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