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Cometa hails Wi-Fi for corporate use

The start-up, backed by Intel, IBM and AT&T, plans to create a network of wireless broadband "hot spots" and then sell access to ISPs and others.

Cometa Networks, a company financed by Intel, IBM and AT&T, will market its services to business users in an effort to build a wireless broadband network, its chairman said Wednesday.

The comments by Cometa Chairman Theodore Schell, presented to participants of iBreakfast, a New York technology networking group, mark an initial clarification of the company's business since it was unveiled in December. However, Schell stopped short of naming the company's partners or the number of access points it plans to set up.

Cometa plans to create a network of wireless broadband "hot spots" based on the 802.11b, or Wi-Fi, standard and then sell access to carriers such as Internet service providers.

Schell cautioned that the market for high-speed wireless access remains in its infancy. Cometa's business, he said, would germinate in the enterprise market where corporations could buy Wi-Fi use from their Internet providers as an additional feature.

The "enterprise user," as he labeled the market, "would be the primary beneficiary," Schell said during his speech. "If we created a homogeneous infrastructure and we wholesaled it to major communications carriers... enterprises could acquire this as a broadband feature on their VPN (virtual private network)."

The demand for Wi-Fi access will largely depend on the gradual building of metropolitan networks and the availability of PCs equipped with that form of wireless technology, Schell said. He estimated there are only 3 million to 3.5 million portable computers in the United States that have Wi-Fi capability.

But that number is expected to increase, helped in part, Schell said, by Intel's plans to introduce its Centrino lineup--a bundle including a microprocessor, Wi-Fi chip and chipset, for making wirelessly enabled notebooks. Coupled with innovations for longer battery life, the number of Wi-Fi portable computers could reach 45 million to 50 million by 2007, he said.

Schell added that a number of fundamental challenges lie ahead for the company, specifically in creating a service that's reliable and secure enough for business users. He also said the services will have to be widespread so that business users could expect uninterrupted access points throughout a city.

In order for that to happen, Cometa will also have to find way to install its hot spots in "highly visible locations," such as retail chains, he said.