Following AT&T's announcement that it has signed up with Gric to supply its customers with wireless at 2,000 extra wireless points across the globe, we took the opportunity to have a chat with the company's global wireless offering manager David Mooring. He told us about the deal, what AT&T's plans were and how he saw wireless progressing in the future.
AT&T is a US company and is focused on the US. It is also a corporate-centred company. While this will tend to give it a narrower perspective than many in the wireless market, there is no denying that even with the plentiful grassroots work on wireless, much of the tangible action happening across the globe in this market is coming from US businessmen.
As the head of wireless for one of the biggest companies offering US businessmen access to this new technology, David Mooring is therefore in a unique position - certainly more so that the wireless visionaries and gurus that keep popping up.
First the deal - AT&T has extended an existing deal with Gric to cover the wireless market. Currently, AT&T customers can buy a service that enables them to use dial-up all over the world using local ISPs (hence hugely reduced call costs as you're not ringing internationally to link to the Internet). AT&T also offers secure access to companies' own network (using IPsec and/or SSL), so businessmen can get into their network securely from anywhere in the world.
A piece of software on the customer's machine - automatically updated and upgraded online - enables the user to quickly input their location, and the phone number and login details of the nearest ISP are brought up. They are entered and away you go.
Gric is heavily involved in that service as it has deals with local ISPs across the globe. It takes a cut of the dial-up costs but AT&T customers are billed only by AT&T. This whole access aspect has now been extended to Gric's wireless access points - where data is passed through the air and no wires or modem is required.
Mooring says this extended service is "just another opportunity". Plus of course wireless access is much faster than dial-up. And less hassle. So by extending its "footprint" to more places across the globe, AT&T's service is more appealing.
What about the costs of these various services? Mooring was very reluctant to give any details, insisting that there was a range of options. Whenever this happens, it is safe to assume that it's not cheap. In some cases, there is an "unlimited" Internet access (150 hours) monthly fee. There are plans for a pay-per-hour service. If you are using AT&T’s secure VPN (virtual private network) service, you need AT&T software at the company end too and there is an installation charge for this plus a regular maintenance fee.
The charging for the new wireless service - available towards the end of this year - will be on a per-minute basis however and the charges are not confirmed yet.
How the corporate market will pan out
So what is AT&T's philosophy behind all this? Mooring tells us that AT&T currently has three million global customers. He couldn't tell us how many of these were using the roaming dial-up service with or without the secure VPN service however. Eventually, the figure of "hundreds of thousands" comes out.
The new deal is for existing users of its service and also to attract new users. These people are "people that do a lot of roaming, clearly someone who spends lots of time in hotels". This is a very clear market and a growing market as people move about the globe more. Their needs can also be pinpointed fairly accurately - access in hotels, conference centres and airports.
David Mooring estimates that in total there are 12,000 points that are useful as access points in Europe for this market. It is currently concerned with covering as many of them as possible and is "not so focused on the 'fill-out' phase".
This fill-out phase has been what has been filing the media for the past few months - pubs, coffee shops, and the likes of McDonalds have all installing wireless access points. No one is really sure why. It attracts new customers appears to be the logic. But if the truth be known, people are just excited that for a very small price (a few hundred quid) they can put a big sticker on the door saying "Internet access available inside".
Mr Mooring likes the idea of this, saying that with retail chains installing Wi-Fi, its potential hotspots could "expand into millions". And AT&T definitely wants a piece of the action. He says he is currently not in talks with any other wireless access providers and that all the company's efforts will go through Cometa - an AT&T company dedicated to building up its own network of hotspots. "Cometa's goal is to become the leading wholesaler of secure, carrier grade, nationwide wireless Internet access," reads the first line of its mission statement.
Cometa is however US-based and focused and won't be providing networks anywhere else in the world. In this sense, it will act as the crossover between the international business traveller using wireless hotspots and the businessman moving about the States, and then, inevitably, to average Joe. The question of how far down wireless will go is the big question.
The consumerMooring says that Wi-Fi will "definitely have some broad market role". He sees the market for mobile business users as sustainable - and this is why AT&T is pumping so much time, money and effort into it. The problem though is that existing wireless hotspots at airports etc are easy to make money from because they have a consistently high demand. But it is feasible to run thousands upon thousands of smaller hotspots that are used less regularly? Is it worth a company subsidising less popular points with more profitable ones in order to provide ubiquitous cover?
"Who knows?" is his answer, but he does explain where he believes the pointers are. "The installed base is quite low at the moment. But a year from now, it will be hard to get a laptop without wireless in." The ratification of the faster 802.11g standard and the fall in wireless prices and chipsets is also building expectations and demand.
Mr Mooring has another pointer: "We should also look at the advent of the PDA. And to what extent Wi-Fi filters down to things like smart phones. If Wi-Fi filters out into the phone market, well, then it gets interesting." The future of the market will be, he reckons, device-driven.
There is one problem that is holding Wi-Fi back across the board however, and that is locating where the hotspots actually are. Wireless access only extends 100 metres or so, so a precise location is needed. You arrive in a new town, you want to connect to your company network and the software tells you there are six in the city - but which is nearer and where is it? Mr Mooring says AT&T is looking at how to solve this problem. One solution of course could be using Bluetooth from someone's mobile phone to a laptop/PDA to give out their location and then work from there.
So what is AT&T's overall approach? It likes Wi-Fi and it is certain it can make it pay - with business users. However, like everyone else, it remains uncertain whether the dream of ubiquitous cheap wireless access for everyone will take off. And so it is dabbling at the periphery of it, learning and watching and keeping its hand in.
Asked about the currently argued-over standard for authentication for a wireless access points - essential for a seamless use of access points and hence essential for their widespread use - Mr Mooring says he doesn't think that AT&T's solution would have to change much when the final standard is ratified. AT&T is not planning to miss out on wireless, however far it goes.