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Commentary: Wholesale Wi-Fi makes sense

Corporate network providers will sign up with Cometa Networks--backed by IBM, AT&T and Intel--to extend their customers' networks with high-quality and secure wireless infrastructure.

Commentary: Wholesale Wi-Fi makes sense
By Forrester Research
Special to CNET
December 18, 2002, 12:00PM PT

By Charles S. Golvin, Senior Analyst

Cometa Networks' wholesale Wi-Fi play will succeed. Corporate network providers will sign up to extend their customers' networks using Cometa's high-quality and secure wireless infrastructure.

Technology behemoths IBM, AT&T and Intel recently revealed the rumored "Project Rainbow" in the form of new venture Cometa Networks. Forrester spoke with Dean Douglas, vice president for telecommunications industry at IBM, who told us that Cometa will do the following:

• Offer wholesale Wi-Fi service. Cometa will offer its network access service on a wholesale basis only. It will sell to long-distance carriers, ISPs, broadband service providers and wireless operators that will resell the service to end users. IBM will build and manage the wireless access components, while AT&T will operate the backhaul and interconnect network.

• Focus on mobile workers. Cometa plans to exploit the growth of mobile workers armed with Wi-Fi-equipped laptops. It will draw on IBM's internal Wi-Fi deployment experience to address enterprise customers' primary concern about wireless: security. Cometa's offering will also simplify access for users by allowing them to sign on to the network using their existing corporate network credentials.

• Go beyond the usual location suspects. Cometa seeks to enable locations where corporate "windshield warriors" can reliably and predictably locate a hot spot. In addition to hotels, it plans deals with retail chains, real-estate firms and universities. The network will launch in 2003, with an initial buildout focused on the top 50 metropolitan areas.

The wholesale approach
Forrester believes that Cometa's approach is the right one and that it will succeed with its wholesale model. As network providers like Nextel Communications and WorldCom sign on, they will pressure Boingo Wireless' retail strategy. And companies like T-Mobile that pursue a vertically integrated strategy that combines network buildout with customer ownership will fail. Why?

• Wi-Fi is primarily for extending corporate networks. Today's wireless LAN customers are not consumers but enterprise workers whose companies demand secure, quality connections. These enterprises will look to extend their AT&T data service contract to a network built and secured by IBM rather than enter into a separate, Wi-Fi-only deal with T-Mobile or Boingo.

• A single provider can't afford to build a national footprint. Cometa will be able to amortize its 20,000-site deployment costs of $30 million across customers like Equant and British Telecom that already hold

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enterprise data contracts. T-Mobile still has to spend billions on cellular infrastructure upgrades and will have to rely on--and cede critical revenue to--roaming partners to provide a national Wi-Fi footprint.

• Wi-Fi access is not a standalone service provider business. Despite the hype surrounding Wi-Fi, the market is small--barely a quarter of companies have committed to wireless LANs. Successful Wi-Fi service will require a single "Wi-Fi here" acceptance mark, and only a wholesale player like Cometa with its big backers will be able to unite competing carriers in their common interest.

Meeting all remote communications needs
As Wi-Fi spreads, road warriors will rejoice as they scrap their modems, dongles and phone cords--then what?

• Voice is the next application. As enterprises adopt voice over IP (VoIP), their voice applications will be available on both IP phones and PCs. The sales rep with a two-hour layover at Chicago's O'Hare airport won't just connect to the corporate LAN using Wi-Fi, but rather connect to the IP centrex system and have his full office setup in front of him. Wireless operators will suddenly have more capacity in previously congested airport cells.

• Broadband providers give Cometa its second wave of customers. Wi-Fi is the obvious remote access solution for broadband consumers who are hooked on speed and who cringe if they have to fall back to dial-up when away from home. When personal laptops and wireless home networks reach critical mass in 2004, Comcast and SBC Communications-Yahoo will bundle Cometa's network with their top-shelf consumer services.

• Mobile operator focus will improve. Widespread Wi-Fi will allow wireless operators to refocus on their key value--mobility. No more talk of W-CDMA, EV-DV,or movie trailers on your phone. Cingular and Sprint PCS will instead focus on driving consumer adoption of GPRS and 1X phones with simple applications like instant messaging and data-enhanced voice mail.

© 2002, Forrester Research, Inc. All rights reserved. Information is based on best available resources. Opinions reflect judgment at the time and are subject to change.