Is roaming coming to Wi-Fi?

Networking groups are searching for ways for Web surfers to roam on any number of wireless networks--just as mobile phone users do.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
3 min read
Networking groups around the globe are working on ways for Web surfers to roam on any number of wireless networks--just as mobile phone users roam on cellular networks.

The popularity of Wi-Fi--which features networking nodes that use the 802.11b wireless technology to broadcast an Internet connection over a radius of 300 feet--has spawned a number of independent companies that offer wireless services. Yet it is difficult, and prohibitively expensive, for many customers of a Wi-Fi service to use the network of another.

The barrier to wireless roaming lies not in technology, but in that carriers have only just started to iron out billing issues. "The bits, the bytes and the hardware exist for roaming. We just need someone to start pulling it all together," said Barry Davis, Intel's director of platform architecture. He's attending a meeting this week of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) in Monterey, Calif., held to discuss how to jumpstart Wi-Fi roaming.

The European Telephone Standards Institute (ETSI) is making a similar effort to encourage companies to explore Wi-Fi roaming. It began work on developing a standard for 802.11b wireless roaming just last year, about the time British Telecommunications began selling its own Wi-Fi service.

While a standard isn't required to create roaming capability, there is industry pressure for the IEEE and the ETSI to agree on one, since it would cut costs and help development of future Wi-Fi technology. This could then be used in such industry efforts as Project Rainbow, a joint endeavor by Intel, IBM, AT&T Wireless, Verizon Communications and Cingular Wireless to create a nationwide Wi-Fi network.

Big names need to log on
Standards bodies can push for change, but the roaming effort won't be successful if some of the largest wireless Internet service providers opt out.

Telecommunications company T-Mobile sells 802.11b access in 2,000 Starbucks coffee shops--making up the largest Wi-Fi network in the United States. It has yet to sign roaming agreements with other wireless service providers, however. A T-Mobile spokeswoman didn't return a call for comment.

The nation's second-largest carrier, Boingo Wireless, has already established roaming agreements with two other wireless providers and is looking to sign more, said company spokesman Christian Gunning. A Boingo customer can now roam onto the 450 Wayport hot spots inside airport executive lounges as well as onto Surf And Sip networks.

Boingo doesn't build new wireless transmission locations, but signs up existing hot spots. It and the company operating the hot spot split any revenue from Boingo users' wireless traffic.

Gunning said the company would welcome a new roaming standard, as it would "cut down on the research and development to make sure that every new partner we get can be let on."

Overseas leaders
A number of European companies are working on Wi-Fi roaming. Swiss carrier Monzune is already testing a service based on software from Transat, said John Baker, Transat's chief executive. Other European trials are scheduled to begin in the next few months using Transat software, he added.

In Japan, Multimedia Mobile Access Communication Systems (MMAC) has also gotten a head start on the IEEE. It was pushed to create a wireless roaming standard by Japanese carrier NTT DoCoMo, which has begun selling Wi-Fi service to some customers on a trial basis.

"The Asian market is getting faster adoption, and the Europeans are next in line," Baker said.