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Yellowspotting Asia

Tech entrepreneur Eg Kah Yee's expounds a vision of uniting Asia and Australia in a wireless web to keep businesspeople connected as they travel from Sydney to Singapore and beyond. Yet like other Wi-Fi proponents, Eg faces a formidable hurdle: the gap between the glorious future and the rather pedestrian present.

Eg is the founder of Malaysian tech company Palette Multimedia, which markets wireless services through its Yellowspots subsidiary. Yellowspots provides 802.11b hotspot access in cafes, office buildings and other public places in Singapore. Yellowspots operates in Australia through a partnership with Air Portal.

Yellowspots is not actually building a wireless network. Instead, it acts as an aggregator. The company brings together telecos, Internet service providers and other operators to allow Yellowspots subscribers to roam across national boundaries.

Like its U.S. counterpart Boingo, Yellowspots wants to become a wireless brand name. Here's how it works: a businessperson in Singapore buys a pre-paid Yellowspots card and heads off to a trade show. She powers up her Wi-Fi-equipped laptop and uses her Yellowspots ID and password to log on to the wireless system. Two days later she flies to Sydney for a meeting. While waiting in the lobby of an office tower in the CBD, she uses the same password to log on to the local wireless net.

Yellowspots handles the back office billing as well as the revenue-sharing arrangements between the various parties. "I don't think there will be a single hotspots player in any country. Our strategy is to partner," said Eg during a recent visit to Sydney to promote Yellowspots. "We want to roam with all these guys, get them connected."

Eg, a 42-year-old U.S-educated engineer and Silicon Valley veteran, compares Yellowspots' service to GSM networks that allow mobile phone subscribers to travel from country to country without interruption in service.

Unwiring cafes is just the start, he says, sketching a plan to provide hotspot service to corporate headquarters and residential neighborhoods. Yellowspots is negotiating with telecoms and other service providers to offer hotspots service in Malaysia, Taiwan and China.

At the moment though, there isn't much roaming room through Yellowspots outside of Singapore. The company has about 150 locations there, ranging from a Starbucks to a convention center.

Yellowspots offers just half a dozen locales in Australia through its Air Portal partner. So unless international travelers happen to be confabing at a couple of locations in the Sydney CBD or lunching at Bisq or the Hatch in Melbourne, they're out of luck. And you can only access Air Portal's hotspots if your service provider is one of the company's three current ISP partners, only one of which is based in Australia. And thus the old chicken-or-the-egg dilemma.

Without a critical mass of hotspots, why should anyone bother to go out and fork over the cash for a Wi-Fi card and then pay for wireless service they can only use at a few scattered locations. On the other hand, what is the incentive to create a hotspots infrastructure if there's not sufficient base of subscribers? Then there's the question of culture.

While Singaporeans or San Franciscans may be quite happy to tap away on their laptops while sipping a grande non-fat latte, Sydneysiders and other Australians don't seem quite as enamored with the cyber caf? scene. It's hard to imagine anyone making money off suits from the big end of town going online while dashing out for a coffee.

The hotspots that count for businesspeople are airports, hotels and office buildings. Air Portal marketing executive Michelle Neil acknowledges that there's not much there there when it comes to hotspots in Australia. "We're still evangelizing in Australia, going after venues and locations."

But she says that's about to change. A forthcoming deal with a "big" ISP will result in 2 million subscribers who can access Air Portal hotspots, according to Neil. Air Portal also is negotiating with hotels and business locations to install hotspots.

"We will have 30 hotspots by January and then will quickly go up to 150 after some major announcements in January," she says. Other potential hotspots are new residential developments and apartment buildings. More importantly, Eg and Neil are counting on the likes of Intel, Dell and other manufacturers to drive the wireless wave.

As computer makers begin to install Wi-Fi cards and chips as standard equipment in laptops, PDAs and other gadgets, the thinking goes, consumers will look for places to play with their new toys. "You have to turn it in to a lifestyle," Eg says.

Yellowspots also expects companies like Intel to help roll out hotspots to push adoption of their Wi-Fi products. "Every new device in a year's time is going to be Wi-Fi enabled," Neil asserts. If that comes true, it begs another question: How long before the lumbering telecom giants decide to jump into this wireless free-for-all and grab the Wi-Fi market for themselves?

Reprinted from australia.Internet.com