RealTime IT News

RoadPost: Wi-Fi This Way

It takes all kinds to make a Wi-Fi world. The variety of business models being tried fairly boggles the mind. Which ones will win? Place your bets.

Take, for example, RoadPost's. A Canadian firm with a Rockville, Md., office and a customer base over 50-percent American, RoadPost is a long-time player in the niche-y but lucrative mobile telephony roaming business.

The company rents mobile and satellite phones and mobile telephone numbers to U.S. and Canadian business travelers heading to Europe and Asia-Pacific.

For a couple of years now RoadPost has been providing roaming Internet access as well -- with 25,000 dial-up POPs in 150 countries. Now, through partner GRIC Communications, the company will add broadband services: hotel Ethernet and Wi-Fi.

"This is being driven from so many different directions," notes RoadPost president and CEO Morris Shawn. "The most powerful is that people are setting up Wi-Fi networks in their homes and offices, and they want it to be as easy and fast as that when they're outside the country."

What RoadPost now offers is a one-stop shop: all your overseas communications -- whether e-mail or phone or corporate Intranet access -- needs from one supplier, on one bill, with discounts for bundling.

"That's our competitive edge," Shawn says, "that we tie all this stuff together. To have one product that combines all these things is very powerful."

The company currently has some of its corporate customers -- enterprises that buy services in bulk from RoadPost -- market trialing the broadband access services. There will be "a broader introduction of the service," by the end of this year when it will also be made available to individual business customers, and RoadPost will introduce bundled voice-data service packages.

There is a tiny flaw in the business plan, though -- GRIC. Not that there is anything wrong with the service GRIC provides, far from it. Shawn says his company did an extensive evaluation of the market before deciding to partner exclusively with GRIC. It was the best it saw.

"The key is that all access -- whether dial-up, Wi-Fi or Ethernet -- is through the same GRIC client software," Shawn notes. "What we're finding is that customers don't want a separate subscription with a Wi-Fi operator, because they'll need dial-up besides, depending on where they are. Putting it all together on one rate plan is a huge attraction."

The common customer experience wherever the traveler goes is another big plus. They connect the wire -- unless it's a Wi-Fi location -- fire up the GRIC software, select their location from a pull-down list, click the type of connection, enter their ID and password and they're in.

"It's very user friendly," Shawn says.

All the remote authentication is handled by GRIC and settlement is done through online integration with RoadPost's billing system. Shawn insists that GRIC as a company is very easy to work with on all aspects of the relationship. So what's not to like?

According to Shawn, RoadPost customers will have access to some 2,000 GRIC broadband access points, about 1,600 of which are Wi-Fi. That's the most of any aggregator he looked at. The catch is that three quarters of those POPs are in the U.S. The rest are spread -- thinly, we'd have to say -- around the world.

If your target customers are mainly interested in your core services because they travel outside North America, what's the good of having three quarters of your broadband POPs in the U.S. -- where chances are your customers' existing mobiles will work fine, and where they can deal direct with GRIC or some other aggregator if they want Wi-Fi connectivity?

In fairness, the U.S. hotel Wi-Fi and Ethernet market has developed much more quickly than markets in Europe and even Asia-Pacific. There are simply more POPs to choose from here. Still, the European market in particular has been coming on gangbusters recently.

France Telecom recently announced an extension of its deal with the Accor Group hotel chain. It's now committed to putting Wi-Fi in 1,300 Accor hotels. I recently visited Vienna, Austria, where start-up Metronet (which we wrote about earlier this year) has hundreds of hotspots up and running.

They're just the tip of the iceberg. Wi-Fi is breaking out all over in Europe.

Also GRIC expects to double its number of broadband POPs by the end of this year, although Shawn can't say if the geographic mix will change.

Almost every Wi-Fi operator we've talked to recently stresses that getting roaming agreements in place is job one. This may be easier said than done with dueling aggregators looking to lock up the biggest operators in exclusive relationships, but it has to be done.

From RoadPost's point of view especially, Wi-Fi ubiquity through roaming agreements must extend to other parts of the world. It's a global economy and a global village. Customers are not going to sign up for services if they need umpteen subscriptions to cover all the different places they go.

RoadPost will find that out. If GRIC can expand its overseas broaband POPs, RoadPost's combined voice-data roaming service will be very attractive indeed.