Wireless broadband goes public

Business professionals looking to access the Internet or their corporate LAN in public venues may now have an opportunity to do so with the launch of Air Portal's public wireless Internet service.

Based on the IEEE 802.11b wireless local-area network (WLAN) standard, Air Portal's new service is designed to provide users with wireless access to high-speed Internet services in public areas through their existing ISP dial-up accounts. Users will be able to connect to the service via either their wireless PC card-enabled laptop or PDA.

Ushering in his company's new service at the launch in Sydney on Tuesday, Air Portal president and founder Andrew Hamilton said Air Portal aims to provide ISPs with public airtime access which they can bundle up and sell alongside their existing range of dial-up and mail services.

The company will not establish its own subscriber base, but instead, focus on reselling the service to other ISPs.

Air Portal has signed US provider Boingo Wireless and niche corporate ISP Hyperlink, owned by The Swish Group, to its service, and says it is also involved in discussions with a variety of other ISPs to expand the service throughout Australia by the year's end.

The Air Portal service commenced in four locations, including The Establishment Hotel in Sydney's CBD and the Bisq café in Melbourne, on Tuesday. The company expects to extend the service to between 50 and 100 locations throughout Australia in the next 12 months.

While logging onto the Air Portal service is secured through 128 bit SSL encryption (used by banks for Internet banking), Hamilton says the company will also rely on its partners ISPs to provide end-to-end security between the user's laptop or PDA and the network.

Because the service will be provided as part of the user's dial-up account, end-user costs for connecting through to the wireless service will depend on each individual ISP. Air Portal marketing manager Michelle Neil says the company will work on a revenue split model, charging ISPs an initial fee for users who connect through the wireless access point, as well as an additional amount based on the time users spend connected to the service.

Manager of information technology at The Swish Group Rodney Hamill says however, that his company is yet to decide on the billing system for the service, and is more inclined towards charging users for data usage in preference to an hourly rate.

"The hourly charge rate for these services used in the US doesn't stack up to the Australian market," he said.

Hamill says he perceives the new wireless service as a "value-add" service for Hyperlink's customers. The service is also beneficial to Hyperlink because the company can offer public wireless access at no cost to the company's existing infrastructure, he said. The ISP will be trialing the service with its customers for free over the next three months.

Neil said Air Portal is also looking to introduce pre-paid cards for the service in the next few months, which will give users who don't hold accounts with Air Portal's ISP partners a temporary login name and password. Users will simply purchase the card on the spot at the venue, she said.

A relatively new player in Internet services, Air Portal is a privately owned and funded company. Launched by Andrew Hamilton in 2000, the company began as a specialist wireless consulting business and has since moved into wireless access services.

Commenting on the uptake of wireless Internet services worldwide at the Air Portal launch, IDC senior analyst for mobile communications Peter Lemon said he believes the company's business model will be a successful one.

"Make it simple, transparent, and don't make them (subscribers) sign up for another service," he said. "That's the key."

Lemon said wireless LAN has experienced a "silent explosion" of growth, estimating the industry to be worth $3 billion in 2001.

"We [IDC] see built-in wireless as the default for the next 10 years," he said.

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Nadia Cameron

Nadia Cameron

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