Choosing a Hotspot & Roaming Partner
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Fixed wireless hotspots are a sizzling topic. Even the mainstream press has
caught the buzz. It seems as if everyone from existing fixed wireless ISPs (WISPs)
to PCS carriers to the average Joe wants to set one up. Many of these potential
hotspot operators are brand new to the business, so the question arises
how do you set one up? Can you make money? Is there a business case for
There are so many hotspot aggregators who have launched that choosing the right one for a first partner is pretty confusing.
It helps to understand some basics first.
The Difference Between Hotspots & Roaming
There's a crucial difference between a hotspot and roaming. Depending on your business type, which one you focus on is important. If your company deploys only hotspots then your focus should be driving traffic to your specific sites.
For a fixed wireless ISP providing area wide service, roaming is most important. The WISP can offer nationwide roaming services to local business clients that DSL competitors can't touch. This is a big competitive advantage.
The Business Case
For roaming the business case is strong and simple. DSL & cable competition can't do it. It can help providers acquire valuable high dollar subscription clients. Plus they can make money when their customers roam.
For hotspots the business case is tougher. Simply building one is insufficient. The venue must value the benefit to its customers enough to pay for the service. Or the WISP and venue both must believe traffic can be driven to the site. There are two ways to do this: Traffic is brought to the venue by a hotspot roaming aggregator or traffic is generated from local signups. So, for either hotspots or roaming an aggregator partner is essential. So how do you choose that partner?
The Customer Element
Whether you're planning pure hotspot deployments or you are a full-fledged WISP looking for a roaming partner or both, your first deal should be with an aggregator where you own your customers. Partners such as Boingo retain ownership of its customers. That's fine, as we'll soon see. These companies also provide great partnership value. However, for a first partner it's important that a business strive to add value to its local network. A business needs to control the growth of customer traffic at its venues by generating signups itself. Roaming aggregators where the hotspot provider or WISP retains customer ownership include: NetNearU, HereUAre, Surf and Sip, iPass and GRIC among others. Companies such as Joltage and Boingo own the customer.
Don't be tempted to completely dismiss partners that build their own customer bases. These companies make great second partners by driving traffic to your sites. Interestingly, most of these firms of both types have mutual roaming agreements so your venue likely will benefit from being on the Boingo network even if you start with NetNearU for example. The key is to link to as many networks as possible.
Still, each aggregator has various strengths. Some reconcile billing completely for example. Others ask the local partner to mirror billing. Some provide security and some don't. Technical solutions vary somewhat. One or two support 802.11a networks in addition to 802.11b. The best bet is to select a vendor with a strong turnkey solution. Strive to pick a product that will allow multiple roaming deals on a given solution. It still behooves a hotspot provider to evaluate the elements of that solution.
A first partner who can handle all of the usage tracking and reconciliation is desirable. A partner that provides a usage table, by customer, allowing you to bill your clients at retail is ideal. An easy online signup for pure roaming customers is important too. Billing is probably the most difficult service to have to develop in-house. Because of this, examine closely the level of responsibility you, as a hotspot vendor will bear. Choose a vendor strong in this regard.
Security is indeed a big issue. For a WISP, securing its local customers from intrusion from hotspots inside its network is crucial. A prospective hotspot provider also should scrutinize any public access spot security technology. Select a partner with a well-thought-out solution. Some aggregators can offer enhanced security features like dynamic keys and in-session re-keying that really strengthen their security systems. Look for this, but don't dwell on it. The best comprehensive solution is still most important.
Your first hotspot or roaming partner should be one that can handle comprehensive tech support. For WISPs, offering service to their own roaming customers, this may not be preferable. Look for partners that can be flexible in routing desirable support calls to you. Otherwise, a partner that handles the bulk of public access support is most attractive.
The partner's ability to link its authorization, authentication and control (AAA) servers to the WISP (to support its roaming customers) is important from the technical side. Differences do exist in the type and quality of AAA security the various solutions field. Also, the level of co-branding and pricing plan flexibility that can be automated is largely controlled by these functions. AAA linking is very important to the WISP and somewhat less so for the hotspot provider.
Obviously, hotspot providers want the best deal. However, programs that offer leasing or encourages easy customer signups at the venue can actually generate more revenue than a program offering a higher revenue share and a less aggressive co-branding and signup program. Weigh each package carefully and look at several. It's likely a hotspot partner with a turnkey package that handles most of the service burden is the best bet to go with. However, companies that require more out of you may offer more lucrative agreements. Even so, it's wise to look for a helpful partner for the first experience.
Tim Sanders is founder of The Final Mile, a fixed wireless consulting group. His experience was gained running a multi-state fixed wireless ISP. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828-253-0702.