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Wi-Fi roams into standards battle

Frustrated over the time it was taking for WECA to make its decisions, a new group is drafting a standard way for consumers to roam between wireless hot spots.

A new standards group has emerged, creating a rivalry in the business of roaming between wireless hot spots.

About 50 companies belonging to Pass-One this week began drafting a standard way for consumers to roam between wireless networks in public places like coffee shops or hotels. The standard expected from Pass-One is considered a rival to a similar set of roaming instructions for Wi-Fi networks being developed by the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA).

WECA created a roaming subcommittee in February 2001, but has yet to finalize its standards. During a WECA meeting this week in Boston, officials working on the roaming standards said they are still a "ways off," perhaps more than a year, from finalizing their effort.

Pass-One was created partly out of frustration over the time it was taking for WECA to make its decisions, said Sean O'Mahony, chief executive of FatPort, a provider of wireless Internet access in Canada, and one of Pass-One's founding members.

"The battle is about seamless roaming, otherwise Wi-Fi is just building hundreds of thousands of little islands around the world," he said.

A WECA representative declined to comment on the group's view of how the roaming standard should work.

A home where Wi-Fi can roam
Roaming is now 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, which is expected to grow to about 42,000 by 2006, according to statistics from research firm In-Stat/MDR.

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

The problem is similar to the early days of cell phones, when there were no roaming agreements, making for limited areas of cell phone coverage for every carrier. But a decade's worth of work crafting roaming agreements and roaming standards now makes it possible for any cell phone to call any other cell phones.

The standards for Wi-Fi--also known as 802.11b--that are being worked on would provide a single way to do the complex task of letting someone log on to a rival host's network then get billed appropriately. The difficulties aren't necessarily of a technical nature, although that is, of course, present. Mainly, it's deciding how to share the revenue.

"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 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.

One thing working against Pass-One, though, is it's a relative foundling, its members having just met last week for the first time to draft its charter. It costs $10,000 to become a member.

"Pass-One is a relatively new body of standards--just came back from their conference in Boston," said Jon Russo, vice president of marketing for iPass, which makes wireless software. It's a member of both WECA and Pass-One. "Pass-One is still in the process of figuring out the impact they want to have on the industry," he added.