Wi-Fi roaming still rules, says ex-Telstra chief

Telstra's former wireless data chief has signed the first Australian partner for his latest wireless venture, which offers services he expects will give his old employer the shakes -- metro Wi-Fi and mobile VoIP.

However, the company won't name names yet. Instead, it will next month announce the deal with a service provider -- its first step into the Australian market.

Craig Cameron, who launched Telstra's ISP operations and wireless data strategy during his eight-year tenure, believes the service and cost benefits of Wi-Fi trump the upcoming 3G offerings of the major telcos.

Cameron joined tiny New Zealand Wi-Fi provider, RoamAD, as CEO last year. The company develops software for large-scale wireless networks, and has targeted select sites across the globe for deployments.

The metro Wi-Fi model was designed to overcome the limitations of wireless hotspots, according to Cameron.

"The problem with hotspots is that you have to go to them to use them. They're not compelling," Cameron said.

A working example of metro Wi-Fi is Auckland. RoamAD's telco partner Reach Wireless used its technology to create a Wi-Fi network that spans Auckland's CBD.

The network uses an array of nodes with radio cards, all working as one via the RoamAD server.

"That cost less than $200,000," Cameron said.

Metro Wi-Fi also allows a roaming, mobile VoIP service.

"Most people say [mobile VoIP] can't be done yet, but we've done it in the US," Cameron said.

In February, the company demonstrated the US Department of Homeland Security's First Responders wireless network. Covering 8km, the Wi-Fi network allows multi-party mobile VoIP calls.

"With SIP phones, we can prioritise traffic. Voice and network management traffic receive equal high priority," Cameron said.

RoamAD could provide mobile VoIP in Australia if the service provider wished to offer it, Cameron said.

"I don't think you'll see Telstra jumping into this [technology].

"This is not attractive for companies with large cellular networks," Cameron said.

Telstra initially joined the wireless crowd by providing hotspots throughout metropolitan areas. However, it has been careful not to let these offerings cannibalise its voice revenue, as it has invested heavily in 3G.

"Currently Telstra has a series of hotspots, but you can't make a voice call and walk down the street. The connection hangs from one cell to another. That's the traditional model. You can't roam," Cameron claimed.

"With Wi-Fi, you have much cheaper calls than cellular. With SIP phones, or PDAs with GSM and Wi-Fi, you can move around and download and upload data.

"And you don't have to pay a sign-on fee at each cell."

The install base of Wi-Fi cards in laptops also removed the need for wireless users to invest in additional hardware, he said.

In addition to service providers, RoamAD sees the education and health sectors, along with business campuses and apartment blocks, as candidates for Wi-Fi networks.

However, Warren Chaisatien, an IDC research manager in wireless and mobility, was less positive.

He said Australia was already well advanced in cellular and wireless broadband technologies, and that Wi-Fi was losing out.

"Unless [RoamAD] can differentiate themselves substantially, I think the prime time for Wi-Fi has passed."