Choosing a Hotspot & Roaming Partner

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
hotspots?

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.

The Details

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.

Billing

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

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.

Tech Support

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.

AAA Linking

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.

Revenue Share

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 [email protected]
or 828-253-0702.

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