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.

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