Public Access

Hotspots are becoming increasingly popular as regional businesses look to capitalise on the additional services and revenues that the wireless technology can deliver.

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By  Zoe Moleshead Published  July 31, 2003

French Connection|~||~||~|With initial plans to open as an internet café in 1997 hindered by licensing laws at the time, French Connection coffee shop in Dubai was forced to postpone its plans. However, customer demand combined with maturing network technologies encouraged the café to roll out a wireless local area network (WLAN) in July this year. Not only does the platform meet customer demand, but it also provides greater flexibility and comfort for users than the original set up would have.

“Many people came in asking for the internet. Customers wanted to sit in French Connection but they also wanted to be connected [to the web] and that was the only service we could not provide,” explains Farida Bahar, manager of French Connection.

“So we decided to provide internet access, especially utilising wireless technology because it means customers can sit wherever they want and be connected — it is more comfortable for them,” she continues.

Furthermore, actually connecting to the internet is a straightforward process for French Connection customers. “They come in and when they log on, they get our homepage and we will give them the password so they can be connected to the internet free of charge,” states Bahar.

French Connection, however, is not alone in rolling out a wireless network. Recent weeks have seen Dubai Duty Free piloting a WLAN at Dubai International Airport, while More restaurant in Dubai also installed wireless network to provide internet access to diners.

These sites illustrate a transition in the use of wireless technology throughout the region. While previous deployments of WLANs have primarily been carried out in private offices or around college campuses to facilitate internet access for students, these latest projects demonstrate the value of wireless access as a service, and forward the uptake of so-called hotspots.

For French Connection customers internet access via the wireless network is free of charge, with Bahar describing the solution as an “added value service.” However, in Beirut the ‘value’ in providing wireless access to public users has evolved into a different model following the deployment of a WLAN from Cisco Systems in the one of the town’s central districts.

“In the last few weeks we have provided Intel with the infrastructure that is needed to have wireless coverage in the Solidaire district. We have tried to provide wireless LAN access, with permission from the Ministry of Telecom, to cover the more trendy, newer cafes that are co-located in this area,” explains Tony Ghattas, territory manager, Levant, Cisco Systems.

The increasing number of public area WLANs in the region is also in contradiction to global trends. While much of the growth in the worldwide wireless networking market has been driven by home users, in the Middle East it is very much being propelled by the enterprise community.

“The key benefit of wireless LANs is the convenience to users and where we have seen a great upsurge of wireless use is in homes — certainly in Western Europe, the US and Japan. It has been that convenience factor combined with the rollout of broadband that has driven the market up until now,” confirms Andy Rolfe, principal analyst with Gartner Group.

While the rollout of broadband regionally has not matched that of Europe or the US, Ghattas does, however, suggest that wireless technology is increasingly being used as an alternative access method to encourage internet penetration in many Middle East countries.

“The number one priority for corporates, ISPs and internet associations together with the government is to increase internet penetration into such [Levant] countries. Due to the inability of a fixed infrastructure, wireless LANs become an attractive proposition for these bodies. They provide an alternative which reaches out to broader market and is cost effective with increased efficiency of deployment and a relatively fast return on investment,” he explains.

||**||Driving factors|~||~||~|However, other factors are also driving uptake of WLANs in the enterprise space. Just as modems and other tools have become standard built-in features of notebooks, so wireless cards and kit are becoming the norm in the latest generation of laptops. As such, Intel’s Centrino technology is helping to spur acceptance and use of wireless networks.

“The advent of Centrino mobile technology has boosted the knowledge of wireless LANs. People understand now that in the same way that they got built-in modems and built-in wired Ethernet connections, they will now have built in wireless connections in their laptops,” says Toni Prince, business development manager for telecommunications & ISPs, Intel Middle East & Africa.

Rifaat Al-Karmi, data manager for Avaya Middle East & North Africa, also believes that wireless enabled technology is encouraging local uptake. Furthermore, he suggests that these products in combination with the falling costs of wireless kit, such as access points, will drive wireless networking into the home market in the Middle East.

“Wireless is not only increasing, it is booming. All the computers are coming with built-in wireless… so the demand for wireless in the office, at home and for hotspots is growing,” says Al-Karmi.

“The demand is mostly in the business and enterprise market, but there is also a significant increment of interest from the SOHO (small office/home office) market. We have had a lot of customers with a single PC approaching us because they want to implement wireless at home. However, it is a difficult market to monitor because users buy products from a normal outlet, not from the vendor directly,” he continues.

While the growth of WLANs is undoubtedly providing a boon for the networking market and its players, the increasing use of technology, especially in public areas, also creates concerns over security and frequency.

Security has been an ongoing debate in the wireless space, with tales of wardriving and unprotected and undetected access points reeled out alongside the benefits of implementing such technology. And while much of the blame for wireless vulnerabilities has been placed at the user’s doors, steps have been taken from both a standards and technological perspective to address the weaknesses of wireless networks.

“The Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) standard that was announced in October last year resolves the home and enterprise [security] problem completely by offering a very strong level of authentication and encryption,” says Rolfe.

“Products incorporating WPA are just about beginning to ship and many vendors are offering upgrades to recent models,” he adds.

Al-Karmi also believes current wireless security standards are more than adequate, while both he and Rolfe advise those users accessing enterprise networks or utilising public hotspots to do so via virtual private networks (VPNs).

“With enterprise or very highly sensitive information users should deploy a VPN over wireless, which gives 3DES 168-bit encryption,” says Al Karmi.

“For hotspot access our advice has always been to use a VPN as it is a very sound and secure solution to the security problem,” confirms Rolfe.

Furthermore, additional standards including 802.11i, and the introduction of WPA as default in wireless products, look set to end many of the user issues surrounding wireless security.

“In about a year, to get Wi-Fi certification vendors will have to have WPA turned on as default in a new product. A user would have to actively turn it [WPA] off rather than forgetting to turn it on, so even that side of the problem is well on the way to being solved,” says Rolfe.

||**||Frequency concerns|~||~||~|While questions over security may have been addressed, concerns are growing about the overuse of the radio wave frequencies used in wireless networks. 802.11b and the recently ratified 802.11g standards operate on the 2.4GHz frequency, with 802.11a running on the 5GHz band. However, many vendors fear that the 2.4GHz channel is becoming saturated by the increasing number of devices, including phones and Bluetooth tools that operate on this channel. Moreover, if hotspot uptake continues to grow, overcrowding seems certain to be the outcome.

“Hotspots are becoming very popular, but as more and more service providers join this bandwagon there will be more and more problems,” says Wael Fakharany, regional manager, 3Com Middle East. “For example, there is a big problem in some of the countries with frequency management and what bands are available for service providers,” he adds.

Gartner’s Rolfe expands on this, explaining that in the 2.4GHz frequency there are only three channels available, which means should there be more than three individual groups operating on this frequency then they will have to share the channel and make do with a lower throughput.

“In the 5GHz band there is currently 12 channels and they are talking about going to 19 or even 24, so there is a lot more air space in the 5GHz band. We believe in the long term, most people will migrate to the 5GHz band because there is more capacity up there and we expect that there will be more dual band products — those that support b, g and a,” he notes.

Locally, this problem is exacerbated by the fact that the 5GHz channel has yet to be approved by local governments. Vendors are, however, working to get the frequency ratified.

“2.4Ghz is already available in the region. What we are working on now with a lot of governments in the region is getting approval on 5GHz. There are two versions of the 5GHz standard — European and US. The former version will be approved and deployed in the Middle East and we are already bringing in some equipment for testing of the 5GHz European version with government representatives in a couple of countries,” states Avaya’s Al-Karmi.

With no timeline as yet identified for the introduction of 5GHz in the region, and Rolfe suggesting that it could be three or four years before the said frequency overtakes 2.4GHz, vendors suggest some form of regulatory body is required to oversee the licensing of outdoor wireless networks or hotspots.

“Generally, in the deregulated markets, there will be a Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), which is a non-governmental body that manages the frequency range and gives licenses to data, voice and wireless operators. There should be a non-biased body that manages the frequency and gives both the incumbent and other players licenses,” advises 3Com’s Fakharany.

Again, this is a model that still needs to be defined in the local market. There have been few signs of such independent regulatory bodies being established in the region. For example, in the UAE, Etisalat’s ISP arm, Emirates Internet & Multimedia (EIM) is currently regulating the deployment of public wireless networks and says any enterprise offering wireless access in public areas without permission from them is contradicting regulatory practises.

Despite the need for governmental invention or policy locally, there seems no doubt that the number of both public and private WLANs in the region will continue to increase. A number of the local operators and ISPs are planning to rollout hotspots over the coming the years, while hotels and coffee shops are likely to maintain their interest in the technology.

Furthermore, an increasing number of networking vendors are being drawn into the wireless space looking to capitalise on the growth opportunities available, and this can only be positive for the end user. As vendors look to outdo each other with the features of their products costs will fall, while the proliferation of Centrino enabled laptops will facilitate the implementation of yet more wireless networks.

“In the next six-12 months, we will see an exponential increase in the availability of the infrastructure for wireless and the devices that can connect to wireless networks,” confirms Intel’s Prince.

||**||Revenue sharing|~||~||~| The deployment of wireless networks in public areas raises a number of questions about how and who to charge for use of the wireless infrastructure. For example, should cafés or hotels that have implemented WLANs share their revenues with local operators or ISPs? Or should such infrastructure owners be issued a license similar to those for internet cafes? Furthermore, how should the actual users of the wireless network be charged?

The Solidaire wireless project in Beirut offers some insight into how such public access infrastructures could be managed. While the project differs slightly from other WLAN implementations in that it has been installed for use by multiple cafes in the area rather than by an individual enterprise, it seems likely to follow the lead of other such projects by adopting some form of revenue sharing.

“This may not be the case in Lebanon, but we have seen it happen whereby the property owners, which in this case would be the café owners, are revenue sharing between themselves and the mobile service provider, Trinec, in this case, on any revenues or sales that are generated from that specific outlet,” says Tony Ghattas, territory manager, Levant, Cisco Systems.

Alternatively, Ghattas says a pre-paid model could be introduced whereby the café owners would make their money through selling pre-paid cards to customers who were already registered with the mobile service provider.

“Customers would have a user profile or pre-paid credit or service from the mobile service provider, which would allow them to access that mobile network. The return for the property owners would be the sale of the pre-paid cards, as well as encouraging people to come and spend more time in their café to access the internet or conduct last minute business outside of the office,” explains Ghattas.||**||

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