Making sense of who does what in the wireless business can be tough work. As well as operators, there’s aggregators, resellers, roaming partners, GSM network operators who also offer Wi-Fi, voice-over-IP companies who also provide wireless access - the list is almost endless.
And it's not just who does what - it's also who links to whom, because well nigh impossible for companies to supply all the elements of anything but the simplest service.
To seek a little clarity from someone who's had to puzzle out many of these relationships himself, we turned to Dave Fraser, the CEO of Devicescape. It's a company whose software helps people get online on mobile devices - it recently did a deal with The Cloud for a new software client, for instance.
(Interestingly, given Europe's historical lead in wireless technology, many of Devicescape's staff are European, including Fraser - a Scot. The company's base in Silicon Valley shows just how much the wireless industry's technology base has since shifted to the US, however.)
Roaming in the gloaming
Fraser says that the big issue with Wi-Fi is the need to roam. Even the biggest network operators cover just a few countries - and aren't ubiquitous within those countries - so unless you only ever connect at a few sites, you need to use multiple networks.
This is where the aggregators come in, linking networks together so customers of one can use others, just as GSM users can roam onto foreign networks - albeit at a price.
"The thing about Wi-Fi is it's fantastically fragmented," Fraser continues. "Wi-Fi is still not consolidating though. The big operators have cut roaming deals, for example BT and T-Mobile have 20 or 30 partners each, but it's an inconvenience, and also there's sometimes roaming fees.
"Then there's the aggregation guys such as Boingo, iPass and WeRoam. And then you get single locations and small chains that contract with them for service.
"Increasingly we're seeing new models too, such as municipal Wi-Fi and government-sponsored public access services, such as the network covering tourist sites in Paris.
"So there's maybe 400 or 500 major networks, but there's also hundreds of thousands of small ones - why should they not participate in aggregation too? We need super-aggregators."