Forging an enterprise mobile access package combining cellular and Wireless LAN is currently a complicated and expensive proposition (largely because the two are developing in isolation, making joint bills complex and wasteful). The good news is that wireless network operators, WLAN hotspot aggregators and others are already beginning to roll out more attractive offerings.
Given the current mess of different wireless options, companies in the industry seem curiously unanimous on the way the picture should look. Users should be able to go to a single service provider, preferably one they already have a relationship with, and buy a package that allows them to use whatever type of wireless access happens to be nearby, automatically selecting the cheapest and fastest if several are available.
Customers should pay only for what they use. If workers aren't travelling much one month, the bill should reflect this. If a user comes across a public hotspot, he should be able to expect that his access package will cover it. "We are moving towards more of a wireless broadband service portfolio approach that's technology-agnostic," says Infonetics Research directing analyst Richard Webb.
Some service providers are even introducing products that are early attempts to provide just this sort of ideal package; wireless operators such as T-Mobile, Vodafone and Orange are all plotting ambitious offerings for this year. On the WLAN side, aggregators such as iPass and GoRemote (formerly Gric) promise enterprises access to thousands of hotspots around the world.
Why should we choose?
With cellular and WLAN remaining more or less isolated islands, shouldn't companies decide which is best for their needs and go with that one? This argument is a red herring, argues Gartner analyst Ian Keene - not only are WLAN and 3G/GPRS complementary technologies, each is not really very useful without the other. And now that WLAN is built into many new business laptops by default, it is simply unrealistic to imagine that users will be connecting to pricey and slower cellular data services if a Starbucks hotspot happens to be around the corner. "Which technology is the best is not a question businesses should be asking," Keene says.
WLAN and 3G/GPRS are assuming a natural rapport without much help from service providers, say those in the industry. The spread of hotspots is getting mobile workers accustomed to the convenience of high-speed, relatively low cost Internet access outside of the office, and that is naturally leading them to take another look at more expensive, but pervasive cellular services. "One of the reasons mobile companies must make investments in Wi-Fi is that it's a driver for ARPU (average revenue per user) on GPRS and 3G," says Niall Murphy, chief technical officer for Wi-Fi wholesaler The Cloud. "I spend money on GPRS - it's slow, but I'm an addict of being connected wherever I am. On the other hand, if my only option was to be connected at a slow speed, my behaviour probably wouldn't have moved to where it is."
Bundling on the way?
Bundles of WLAN and cellular services are slowly beginning to appear in Europe. T-Mobile appears to be a leader in this area, though its plans are somewhat mysterious. In May the company quietly launched the TM3 strategy, its take on the integration of WLAN and cellular, but this plan is so obscure that it isn't mentioned on the T-Mobile UK Web site; press representatives don't appear to be familiar with it.
However, the company eventually confirmed that enteprises can indeed now pay a flat rate for both 3G/GPRS access and use of T-Mobile's hotspot network, for slightly more than the ordinary £70 per month 3G subscription, with pricing going down for high-volume orders. Currently T-Mobile only offers a 3G/GPRS data card, so laptops must have built-in Wi-Fi or a Wi-Fi add-in card to take advantage of the combined plan. T-Mobile claims its client software automatically chooses the best network available, without interference from the user.
Vodafone (see a review of its 3G service) is planning the imminent launch of something similar, the company said, but hasn't announced a date or pricing details. Orange lags the others somewhat, but is planning to offer a 3G data card in the second half of this year. "I've seen service providers talking about this, but I haven't seen them launching a lot of products," said The Cloud's Murphy.
The wireless operators' plans are only part of the story. These companies are naturally focussed on their cellular services, having paid astronomical prices for 3G licences, and won't necessarily come up with the best cellular/WLAN integrated packages, industry observers say. Indeed, Nigel Shardlow, head of innovation and incubation at Orange UK, indicated in May that the company sees 3G as an improved alternative to WLAN, arguing it will prove to be cheaper and more secure.
The gap could be filled by fixed-line data service providers, VPN providers and other third parties, who are free to piece together packages including WLAN and 3G/GPRS across multiple networks. "They have no reason to want to protect the interests of GPRS or 3G," says Murphy. "The bad news is, there is a large number of players emerging, and that could lead to a potentially chaotic situation."
Some aggregators already offer some form of cross-network access: GoRemote, for example, lets US users get online via hotel Wi-Fi, GSM/GPRS, hotel Ethernet and even dial-up.
Will combo cards clear up the confusion?
At the technical level, the integration of WLAN into 3G/GPRS cards will further simplify services; the first such cards are on the way this summer. Option, the developer of Vodafone's 3G/GPRS card, is to begin selling a 3G/GPRS/WLAN card through Swisscom Mobile in August, and the device could be on the way to the UK not long after.
Option claims its card will make for seamless handovers between various networks, but experts are sceptical. "With EDGE, WCDMA and GSM, handovers are completely seamless, it was designed for this," says Nokia head of technical marketing Oscar Salonaho. "With WLAN it's an inter-system handover, and that requires some work. 802.11 has been standardised one place, and cellular has been standardised somewhere else."
Soon wireless metropolitan area networks (MANs) will also be added into the mix of technologies, falling somewhere between the small islands of WLAN and the broad coverage of cellular. Irish Broadband is offering MAN service in Dublin (in a pre-WiMax service) and startup Libera is planning to launch a service in London in the third quarter of this year. In the short term these services are intended to compete with ADSL or T1, but mobility is not far away; Nextel is trialling such a service in the south-eastern US.