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."
He adds that Wi-Fi is increasingly proving attractive to the cellular operators, who contract with the big wireless operators to get extra capacity in specific areas.
"It's cheaper to put a wireless access point in a high-traffic venue than it is to install another cell tower, plus the bandwidth is cheaper," he explains.
The snag is that while an increasing number of phones are now dual-mode, they also need the ability to seamlessly roam from cellular data to Wi-Fi - and while software such as Devicescape's can do Wi-Fi roaming, adding cellular to the mix is not exactly trivial.
One reason for this is the variety of bearers in use, Fraser says. Initially it's Wi-Fi and 3G, but while 3G means UMTS in most places, it can also be EVDO and others in the US. Add WiMax to the mix, and that's a lot of spectrum to cover.
He predicts that eventually "devices should be able to use any network - the radio will be practically zero extra component cost. The question will be whether you have the rights to access that network."
That's where the need to roam across services comes in, and it highlights one of the biggest opportunities for misunderstanding, says Fraser. He adds that the problem is that the key players are all coming at this from different directions, and often don't understand each other's needs and motives.
"The most apparent divide is networks versus device manufacturers - the manufacturers know they need interesting products and services, if they can be connected up. The device manufacturers don't understand the network world though, so they need a connector," he explains.
Could that connector be one of the big aggregators? Not yet, thinks Fraser: "The aggregators are in a difficult position right now. They have been at this for several years, aggregating hundreds of networks, but with a very PC-centric approach.
"I think it will take several years for Wi-Fi to shake out, but eventually you'll have a single provider and you'll be able to use it all over."
He adds that at the moment, most wireless Internet access is via PCs, but that's changing. Increasingly it's moving over to be dual-mode phones, portable email and entertainment devices, digital cameras and other more dedicated devices.
That's going to have a number of effects, he predicts - in particular, devices won't need to be online as long, and today's pay-per-access hotspots could become economically unviable.
"Bundled access on devices is coming," he says. "So it will be harder for Wi-Fi networks to charge, and it will be harder for small networks because the world will favour large networks.
Batch vs on-line
He adds: "Human beings get fixed ideas - that the 'Net is about surfing, say. But devices are not like PCs - they are more batch-orientated. There are some browsing devices, but most are more purposeful, and typically it's a single-purpose device that gets the market share - think of movie players and games systems.
"For example, your digital camera could send a photo to Flickr or your home PC. There's a job to be done - the device wants to get on the network, do its thing, then get off again. Very few will want to stay on for long, that's just for browsing or games."
This is part of the rationale for a new system that now undergoing user trials, called Devicescape One, he says. This goes back to the old days of charging per minute - yes, it could be used for web access, but it'll be more cost-effective for quick on-off connections, Fraser suggests.
"We are now buying wholesale minutes to be an outbound roaming partner," he says. "With some networks we need minutes to get access - for example we can grant the user two minutes access where otherwise they'd not have had access."
He adds that few devices need to be always-on - most can simply store their transactions until they get the chance to connect. And even if they do need always-on, Wi-Fi is probably not the best way to achieve it.
"For some devices it'll be appropriate to be always-on, but it's less relevant the further you get from a phone. They could still be polling though," he says.
"If you want always-on, there's already a good technology for that - cellular."