An agreement by the wireless carriers on the basic plumbing of inter-carrier Wi-Fi roaming and interoperability could become a North American-wide service early next year. Almis Ledas, VP of corporate development at Bell Mobility, told Report on Wireless in an interview during the Wi-Fi Power 2004 conference in Toronto last week that an integrated service could be launched in about 12 months. "I think that’s reasonable although I couldn’t (provide) an actual schedule," Ledas said. Ledas said that talks toward that end are already taking place with players south of the border. "There’s discussions with not only the major wireless carriers, but also with other Wi-Fi network operators. The win-win would be that as they enter into Canada, they enter in a way that’s consistent with the industry evolution that we have, that it helps build the industry, helps generate awareness, and at the same time, helps promote the same type of connectivity for Canadian customers traveling to their networks … and they do it in a way that is familiar and recognizable by the maximum number of potential users in this country." While North American-wide roaming among carriers’ cellular networks, their hotspots and independent Wi-Fi operators’ hotspots is the ultimate goal, the carriers’ March 1 announcement is only a first step. The establishment of common standards for roaming and interoperability and a common brand identifier are the two key aspects of this announcement. Cell phone company subscribers will be able to use the service and have the charge applied to their cell phone bill. David Robinson, VP of business development at Rogers Wireless Inc., explained during a conference panel session that the carriers recognize they need to act quickly on this front. "It became clear to us that unless we agreed to a common standard for inter-operations for roaming, the market could fragment to the point that it simply wouldn’t be useful to consumers. This would be tragic because the technology itself is promising; it’s standardized, and it’s very low cost from an equipment point of view. We wanted to be able to leverage that, and a critical component was making sure that as many locations as we could possibly get into that roaming fabric could become part of that roaming fabric. That’s what we did. We agreed on a common method of plumbing these networks together and really nothing more," he said. The carriers hope that by late summer or early fall they will be able to launch a service commercially. But Robinson says further work needs to be done. "We’re trying to integrate this functionality into the type of systems that frankly wouldn’t know a Wi-Fi session if it hit them in the head. We have to get our systems to recognize and be able to integrate with our existing billing, provisioning systems and interconnect them and then add a clearinghouse to the interoperating umbrella so that we can add virtually any independent operator, any aggregators, operators international or otherwise into the network," Robinson said. Robert Blumenthal, VP of products and services at Telus Mobility, said that creating a common interface is key to attracting the business user, who doesn’t like to pull out a credit card in every location. "In fact, that drove us to recognize that if we’re going to create a service experience for business users that it’s as simple as connecting, logging in wherever they happen to be regardless of who the local operator happens to be. It needs to move to a subscription model where we can leverage all the sales and distribution channels to sell and support the service and be able to provide seamless interoperability and roaming in all of those locations. And when those two pieces come together, we’ll have a viable service for consumers that they’re willing to pay for." All four carriers have agreed to build out a combined 500 hotspots over the next year, which some suggest would double the number of operational hotspot locations. BOLDstreet Wireless Internet, Spotnik Mobile, Fatport Corp. and Tadaa Wireless Communications have a combined total of approximately 375 hotspots (see box for breakdown). Pierre Bonin, executive VP of Microcell Solutions Inc., said building out enough hotspots will be the key to ensuring the success of this initiative. "If we all collaborate, we will have a larger number of hotspots that will be available to the customer base. So it’s a question of critical mass ultimately and I think I can probably draw a parallel to what happened when the banking industry went with ATMs. It took a while for them to gain traction. It’s when Interac was developed that we really saw the traction coming, so you can probably see (the parallel in) our agreement … facilitating the end-user and not worrying about who is operating this particular hotspot as long as it is supported by our common brand." The carriers have developed a common "hotspot" logo that will identify every location, which is part of the inter-carrier roaming agreement. It’s unclear at this point whether that brand will take precedence over other independent brands. But Tom Camps, president of Ottawa-based BOLDstreet Wireless Internet, maintains that the independent brands will "emphatically not" disappear. Blumenthal reiterated during a keynote address that using the wireless carriers’ networks to stitch together the disparate hotspots is key. "You will not see large metropolitan areas covered with Wi-Fi. You will see select locations. You won’t see it being deployed as pervasively as we have macro cellular networks. The objective that we all have ultimately is to provide usage with a singular experience to connect to whatever is the best available network at any given time and that includes the cellular networks," he said. In an interview after the session, Blumenthal said it doesn’t make economic sense to build out a vast Wi-Fi infrastructure covering major urban areas, and that it would be difficult for independent operators to succeed without the wireless carriers’ involvement. "In the next three to five years, maybe you’ll see someone with deep, deep pockets that will want to go out and do that. But I think every time you’ve seen someone go out and do wireless broadband displacement, whether that be Look TV or cable displacement, there’s only so much economy (of scale) you get out of it. "It’s possible that a number of larger Wi-Fi providers could have gotten together. But to make something successful, you also need (to drive the market). So they would not only have to invest in infrastructure, they’d also have to invest in brand and everything else," he explained to RoW. Independent operators bullish on carrier agreementCanada’s independent Wi-Fi network operators are bullish on the wireless carriers’ agreement on interoperability and roaming, and its ability to push the public hotspot business model toward viability. "The shortcomings in our industry are not related to numbers of hotspots, equipment or anything else. It’s 100% about where are the users and the carriers have the users," Camps tells RoW. "How do we get access to them?" he asks. "One way is to position as a subscriber brand, trying to lure subscribers, but the reality is those companies, I don’t care how much money they can raise, they will not be able to make themselves a Bell Mobility or a Rogers Wireless and that’s a fact of life. "Our approach has been all along to try to add value to what the carriers are doing insofar as we wanted their subscribers coming to our locations. So this is a first and important step." However, there was talk in the conference corridors that this agreement won’t necessarily provide equitable access to all independent hotspot operators. Some suggested that the agreement will place additional requirements on the smaller outfits to get bigger, faster by quickly expanding their footprints. Others aren’t so sure. Camps says it’s hard to say whether the agreement gives any advantage to companies with larger footprints. "That’s undefined right now. They’re going to be negotiating access and … we’ll have to see what the terms end up being."