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The Wi-Fi market today is evolving in the right direction. Just as we saw in the early days of cellular, operators are establishing roaming agreements that allow their customers to access the Wi-Fi hotspots operated by other providers. T-Mobile has opened its Wi-Fi network to outside subscribers for the first time. Wayport has announced roaming deals with leading wireless and wireline operators including Verizon Wireless, Sprint PCS, MCI and SBC. And these are just a few examples of recent roaming initiatives.

See “Roaming Bedevils Wi-Fi Value-Add Services”

But such roaming initiatives are only the first step toward making Wi-Fi a profitable service. Most agreements to date have focused strictly on enabling “connectivity services” – in other words, allowing a customer to access the Internet via Wi-Fi networks.

Delivering Value-Add Services
The next step is determining how to deliver value-added services, which can improve the profitability of Wi-Fi significantly. In fact, according to some estimates, offering value added services could deliver more than $100 million in incremental revenue to a carrier.

For example, imagine if you were unable to access voice mail when you traveled outside of your cellular service provider’s network territory. Not only would it be frustrating for you as a subscriber, it would also mean fewer revenues for the cellular provider and its roaming partner, given that operators charge for the airtime that subscribers use when checking voice mail. The same holds for other services as well. If the personal ringtone that you download only works in a certain geographic area, what would be the point of personalizing your phone?

In today’s Wi-Fi world, operators will collect higher revenue from Wi-Fi subscribers if they make it easy for those subscribers to play the same game on the Wi-Fi network at Starbucks and on the Wi-Fi network in their local airport. Or if they make it easy for subscribers to print out an important business document both at the local Kinko’s andat a hotel that offers Wi-Fi access. Or if they enable a subscriber to access the same messaging and content services on a Wi-Fi network as they access on a cellular wide area network. Of course, part of “making it easy” means not forcing users to reregister or enter credit card information to perform these tasks as well as making the user aware of the services.

Kevin Jackson is co-founder and vice president of marketing for Tatara Systems of Acton, Ma., makers of Wi-Fi service delivery platforms.

The challenge ahead

Enabling the seamless and consistent delivery of value added services is particularly difficult in Wi-Fi, where many Wi-Fi subscribers immediately log into their virtual private networks (VPNs) after establishing a Wi-Fi session. These VPNs often block an operator’s access to a customer, making it very difficult for the Wi-Fi players involved to advertise or deliver value added services – not to mention making it difficult to bill for them. For instance, in the printing example above, a user might have to shut down his or her VPN every time that user wishes to print a document, making the subscriber a lot less likely to use that service.Another challenge is created by the increasing prevalence of roaming client software, which end users often download from their service providers after purchasing Wi-Fi service. The software, which is designed to facilitate the user’s connection to a Wi-Fi hotspot, does offer tremendous benefits in areas such as security and ease of use. However, the roaming client software also has the effect of isolating the end user from a hotspot operator’s ‘portal page’. In effect, the client software, rather than the end user, now ‘logs in’ through the portal. And this makes the user unaware of local services such as printers or other venue-specific information and advertising that may be available at the hotspot.

For example, leading network operator Wayport now offers access to BusinessWeek, The New York Times and USA Todayto users who log onto a Wayport network through the Wayport login portal. But roamers using another service provider’s client software may never see this.

The challenges really involve visibility into the subscriber. In order to support and deliver value added services to customers, operators must have ongoing access to the customer. That means that they must be able to deliver services through the VPN, not around it. Hotspot operators need the ability to communicate with subscribers to make them aware of hotspot-specific benefits and services. And the operator that owns the customer relationship must be able to obtain information such as what the user is doing on the network – and how long that user spends doing that task – in order to bill for the service later. Equally importantly, both operators need to have roaming relationships both with each other and the providers of any add-on services that address how these services should be accessed and charged and how revenue should be shared.

All this information has to be collected automatically, so that the user is not involved. Subscribers simply won’t use services if they have to reenter their credit card information, log off their VPNs or identify themselves each time that they want to print out a document or play a game at the local Wi-Fi hotspot.

New delivery platforms

By implementing a Wi-Fi platform into their networks, the operators that own the end customer relationships can gain presence, visibility and reachability information into their subscribers’ activities, even while they are roaming. Operators can use this platform to communicate with the user’s client software to make the user aware of a service and capture the user’s request for a service – even if the user is running a VPN. The platform would then communicate with the infrastructure provider to make sure that service is delivered. And the platform can collect the information needed to bill and settle for that service later.A new category of solution is emerging – the Wi-Fi service delivery platform – to complement the capabilities of both traditional hotspot network equipment and client software in the delivery of value-added Wi-Fi services. By adding this key piece of infrastructure, Wi-Fi players can start making real strides toward delivering value added services across Wi-Fi networks – which in turn leads to a more profitable Wi-Fi business.