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Free software adds to roaming battle

Wireless software maker iPass hopes that making its application free of charge will create a "quasi standard" for roaming from one Wi-Fi network to another.

The battle to create a common way for people to roam from one Wi-Fi network to the next heated up again on Monday.

Wireless software maker iPass said Monday it will make available the specifics of its roaming software for free to anyone who wants it. The company had been making its software available for free before Monday, but only on a case-by-case basis. About eight equipment makers, including Cisco Systems, and eight wireless Internet service providers have been using its software.

iPass Vice President of Marketing Jon Russo said the company's move is intended to create a "quasi standard" for roaming while the standards group Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA) completes its work on the issue. WECA's efforts may take at least another year, which led to the creation of an upstart group called Pass-One, which has just begun working on a proposed roaming standard.

Roaming is a major focus for the wireless networking industry because of the growing number of cafes, hotels and airport lounges where people can pay a small fee for a day's worth of wireless Internet access. But so far, it's a fragmented group of about 1,200 locations using equipment with various methods of authorizing customers and billing them for time on the networks.

Complicating the matter is the creation of wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) like Boingo Wireless . These companies have crafted partnerships with many of the public hot spots in the United States. But because there is no roaming standard, a Boingo Wireless subscriber can't roam onto the network of another WISP such as Sputnik.

"We can't wait for (other) standards to come out," Russo said. "There's still work to be done on standards. Until that time, this becomes the de facto standard," Russo said.

The money factor
The difficulties over roaming are split into two areas: deciphering the technical vagaries and deciding how to share the revenue. Executives attending the recent 802.11 West conference said the technical challenges are already being met, and now it's coming down to the nitty-gritty of how to split any revenues made every time someone logs on to a competitor's network.

"When roaming agreements and standards come into play, consumers and corporations are going to want equitable pricing," said Chuck Jacobs, president of Andrew, which uses Wi-Fi networks--also known as 802.11b--to help make cellular telephone coverage better inside buildings.

The industry has not come to a consensus on how much wireless Internet providers should charge each other for connecting to the network.

"Everyone is taking a strategy of starting roaming independently," said Sean O'Mahony, chief executive of FatPort, a provider of wireless Internet access in Canada and one of Pass-One's founding members. "You can't expect people to sit on their hands."

The Pass-One effort is only just under way, with the group having little more than its charter to show for its efforts. WECA has yet to divulge any details of the work of its roaming subcommittee. A representative for WECA had no immediate comment on the iPass' move on Monday.