RealTime IT News

The Private-Label Hotspot

Wi-Fi hotspot operators continue to experiment with business models and opportunities, looking for ways to actually make money at this game.

Spotnik Mobile, a Canadian service provider with over 100 hotspots up and running, mostly in Toronto, recently launched a first of its kind that looks promising: a private-label hotzone for a big Toronto law firm, Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP (FMC).

FMC has offices in five Canadian cities and New York. The Toronto branch, with over 200 lawyers, covers four and a half floors of a major downtown bank tower complex.

The firm wanted to provide clients and outside attorneys with a convenient way to keep in touch while visiting its offices. The Spotnik hotzone, which covers all areas in the office, lets them log in with a security code and go out on the public Internet through a Spotnik server to access e-mail and surf the Web.

"Our view is that excellence in client service is the core of every successful relationship we have with clients," says Chris Pinnington, FMC's managing partner in Toronto. "This initiative is just an extension of that principal."

Both FMC and Spotnik claim the service met with good success in the weeks immediately following its launch, though neither would reveal usage statistics.

"We've had a lot of positive response from their lawyers and from their clients and other lawyers visiting their offices," says Spotnik co-CEO Murray McCaig.

Adds Pinnington, "We've had a very enthusiastic response from our own lawyers especially. They've really been champions of it."

The firm believes the hotspot service gives it a competitive edge -- albeit probably only temporary.

"Given the competition in the field I would guess this idea will appeal to [other law firms] as well," Pinnington says. "We have the advantage of being first, but I don't know how long we'll be the only firm with this service."

Not for long, according to McCaig. He says that while FMC, in a sense, gave his firm the idea for this kind of business, Spotnik has been running with it ever since.

"We certainly have a ton of interest [from other prospective clients] at the moment," he says. That includes other Toronto law firms. McCaig says the company expects to make other announcements within the next few months. "But we're all looking to see how this one unfolds first."

If the FMC service is heavily uses and the firm continues to be satisfied with the results, others are sure try the same thing, he says.

The seeds for the project were sown when FMC IT staff witnessed Spotnik launching a hotspot at a nearby coffee shop and saw the possibilities for doing something internally for clients.

"It wasn't that there was demand from clients for this service specifically," says Pinnington. "We really anticipated the opportunity. But we deal with some very sophisticated clients, including many in the high-tech sector."

At the time, Spotnik was trying to sell FMC on a discounted corporate-wide subscription that would allow its lawyers to use the public Spotnik hotspots.

Meanwhile, FMC went full speed ahead on the private hotspot project. It did not already have wireless infrastructure in place, so it hired IBM to implement a WLAN that includes four Cisco Aironet 1200 series access points on each floor, plus other Cisco infrastructure.

The Cisco technology supports virtual WLANs. FMC can operate two or more VLANs over the same infrastructure, one public -- the Spotnik service for clients -- and one private for use by staff, each with its own authentication rules and access mechanisms.

So far it has only implemented the public WLAN. Users who see the advertising around the office or are told about the service by their lawyer can request one of the re-usable security codes. When they associate with the public WLAN through the Spotnik authentication server, they're presented with a log-in page where they enter their code.

Spotnik provided its own onsite server running triple-A software it developed itself, and a broadband connection back to its Toronto Network Operations Centre. The rest of the wireless infrastructure was supplied by IBM and is owned by FMC.

"The reason we reached outside to [Spotnik] is that they have industry-leading expertise in authentication and security," Pinnington explains. "They provided installation and management of all those functions."

While the existing wired network infrastructure provides the backhaul between access points, the public WLAN is completely separate from FMC's corporate network.

"Wireless traffic runs over the wired infrastructure, but it does not interact with production data," explains FMC manager of technical services David Komaromi.

Komaromi says the firm will eventually implement a private (virtual) WLAN for use by staff and partners, one that may include Voice over IP. In the meantime, some, but not many, lawyers use the WLAN in the same way clients do.

Why the firm hasn't already implemented a private WLAN, having invested heavily in the infrastructure, is a little puzzling.

"As security standards improve, we will internalize certain services," Komaromi says at one point. "VoIP comes to mind as one."

Later, though, he downplays the WLAN security concerns, insisting that the only reason for not moving forward on the internal WLAN is that the motivation for the project -- and its main focus still -- is providing a client service.

Another reason, though, may be that Pinnington doesn't see the value of an internal WLAN.

"To be honest, I'm not sure there's a compelling need [for firm lawyers to access the corporate network wirelessly]," he says. "They can also plug in a laptop [to the wired network] in our conference rooms if they're working there with a client."

Meanwhile, Spotnik's McCaig points out that running public and private networks on the same infrastructure is not a new idea. His company is already doing the same thing in partnership with communications provider Telus at BC Place, another major downtown Toronto office complex.

"Along with Telus, we built full in-building Wi-Fi infrastructure on which there are both public and private layers," McCaig says. "The public layer is managed by Spotnik -- so in that sense it's very similar at a high level to what we're doing at Fraser Milner."

Spotnik and its partners may not be the only ones trying this approach. It makes too much sense for others not to be thinking along the same lines. If they are the only one now, that won't remain true for long.