RealTime IT News

iPass: Wireless Broadband Contender?

If you sell to business customers, it's only a matter of time before some of them, maybe most, start to demand broadband roaming service—if they haven't already begun. And if you can't provide it, those customers will look for another supplier that can.

With longer flight delays and more flight cancellations an almost guaranteed feature of business travel going forward, being able to connect at high speed to the Internet while in transit will become a need-to-have, not a nice-to-have.

So what's the solution? Find a partner that already provides broadband roaming services which you can then resell to your customers. Establishing your own network of Wi-Fi public hot spots is clearly not an option.

We've already looked at a couple of potential partners, MobileStar Network Corp. of Richardson TX—which recently filed for bankruptcy—and GRIC Communications Inc. of Milpitas CA.

Here's one more—iPass Inc. of Redwood Shores CA.

Decent Offer?
iPass is a familiar name, long associated with dial-up roaming services. Now with a recently launched broadband service program, iPass offers what may be the most compelling proposition yet.

MobileStar was building an impressive network of airport, hotel and Starbucks coffee shop Wi-Fi POPs before it ran into financial difficulties. But the company seemed barely interested in the idea of partnering with wireline ISPs. It preferred to focus on direct sales to business users.

Hmmm. Maybe that's one reason MobileStar failed.

For GRIC, partnering with ISPs is a much more mainstream part of the strategy, but the company's broadband program is mainly focused on providing POPs in Asia. And GRIC is somewhat selective about the ISPs with which it will partner.

iPass on the other hand counts many smaller ISPs among the 1,000 with which it already has reselling agreements. And it's always looking for more.

"As long as they're financially viable," Anurag Lal, the company's vice president of business development and strategic services, says of iPass's selection criteria. "As long as they can pay their bills."

"They have to be able to manage their own network environment. But if we believe they have access to a customer base that is interested in this service, we can provide a complete turnkey system."

Most of iPass's 15,000 or so POPs in 150 countries around the world are still dial-up only, but the company has 70 broadband POPs, mostly in Asia, mostly Wi-Fi, which it began to make available in September.

And Lal says the company will have 600 broadband POPs in place around the world by the end of this year, most, again Wi-Fi based. Seventy to 80 per cent of them will be in North America, 10 per cent each in Europe and Asia.

Friends and allies
Key to iPass's suddenly high profile in the Wi-Fi roaming market are partnership agreements with two companies: Austin TX-based Wayport Inc. and Concourse Communications Group LLC of Springfield MA.

Wayport, which pioneered the Wi-Fi roaming space along with MobileStar, has broadband wired and Wi-Fi airport and hotel POPs across the country. iPass customers will have access to them.

The Concourse agreement, announced October 1, could be particularly important. Concourse has a technology—and spectrum-neutral wireless access platform that it markets to owners of facilities. It now has master agreements with several airport and other facilities across the U.S.

Concourse will build the wireless infrastructure under contract to the facility owner. iPass will overlay the service infrastructure using its client, authentication, transaction processing and security software.

Lal insists the 600 POPs by the end of this year include only sure things—only airports and other locations that already have infrastructure in place or that have signed contracts allowing Concourse or another iPass partners to set up new wireless or wired broadband access networks.

iPass and GRIC, clearly, are direct competitors. While they offer similar services, there are slight differences in the way they operate.

According to Lal, GRIC has many bilateral agreements with service providers—the ISP provides roaming access to GRIC subscribers and also resells the GRIC service. "We don't go down that road," Lal says.

The reason: iPass wants to be able to pick and choose which service providers it uses to provide POPs but figures the more ISPs reselling its service the merrier—including some it would never want to rely on for access services. So it keeps the two things completely separate.

GRIC often or usually places its own server in front of the roaming partner's POP. This is to ensure quality connections and also allay any concerns partners may have about letting another company's software run in their environment.

iPass, on the other hand, almost always has its software running in the partner's environment. "That's a sign they trust us," Lal claims.

No slighting security
The other way iPass differentiates itself is by offering seamless VPN integration. Most of its enterprise customers, Lal says, insist that roaming employees only access the Internet remotely by going through a VPN connection back to the corporate network and then from there out over a gateway to the public Internet.

When a subscriber logs on, iPass's software sends encrypted authentication information back to one of the company's five network operations centers (NOCs), which typically decrypt it and relay it to the enterprise customer's site.

There, assisted by iPass-supplied software, the enterprise system looks up the user's name in its database and confirms the person is a legitimate user. That information goes back to the remote access provider.

At this point, the iPass software sets up a VPN connection to the customer's network and the remote user gets access to the Net. iPass can integrate with Nortel, Cisco, Microsoft and Check Point VPN systems.

To round out its security package, iPass also supplies personal firewall software for users to keep air hackers out of their systems while they're connected to a wireless network.

One other nice feature is that iPass's software keeps track of customer experiences with roaming partners. If a pattern begins to emerge that subscribers often can't get access to a partner's POP, iPass warns the partner and may even pull the partner or specific POP from its network until the problem is solved.

iPass gathers all billing information and relays it to the ISP partner over a Web interface. The ISP marks up iPass's wholesale rates—usually calculated on a pay-as-you-go basis in keeping with the requirements of most enterprise customers—and incorporates the charges into its own bills.

Is iPass the ultimate answer to the broadband roaming problem ISPs face? We won't go that far, but iPass is definitely a contender.