Wi-Fi wonder

Dubai’s Al-Musalla Tower mall overturns the apple cart by making wireless internet access free for shoppers, effectively turning the shopping mall into a wireless hot spot.

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By  Simon Duddy Published  April 16, 2005

|~|Rakesh_m.jpg|~|“People don’t buy a notebook on a phone call anymore, they want to see and test it, which makes the hot spot a great sales tool for IT resellers.” - Rakesh Bohra, managing director of Wi-Fi Computer Zone at Dubai’s Al-Musalla Tower mall.|~|Wi-Fi Computer Zone at Al-Musalla Tower mall in Dubai has introduced free wireless internet access for shoppers. The company has effectively turned the shopping mall into a wireless hot spot offering 11Mbytes/s bandwidth using 802.11b technology. Wi-Fi Computer Zone took over the Al-Musalla Tower mall last year, leasing the units from Union Properties. The company has since built up an IT-centric feel to the centre, with the majority of the mall’s 77 units taken up by computer shops. Wi-Fi Computer Zone itself runs two shops in the mall, one focusing on IT components and the other on consumer electronics. The Wi-Fi hot spot is in keeping with this IT feel, but the main reasons for creating the wireless service was to attract customers and differentiate the mall from its competition. Dubai is home to many shopping malls, a number of which focus heavily on IT, but so far the Al-Musalla Tower mall is the only one to feature a free hot spot that covers the entire centre. Rakesh Bohra, managing director of Wi-Fi Computer Zone says the wireless hot spot mall is necessary because of changing buying habits among IT consumers. “The market has gone retail. People don’t buy a notebook on a phone call anymore, they want to see and test it, which makes the hot spot a great sales tool for IT resellers. It allows people to test a product’s Wi-Fi capability while they are in the shop and allows them to read more on the products,” he explains. Shoppers access the service using scratchcards, which are distributed on request at the mall. The user logs on and can use the service for 30 minutes before being automatically logged off. Since the mall started the scheme in December, it has seen the number of visitors rise from 150 people per day to 4-500 people per day. Bohra has also noticed people visiting the mall with a notebook just to use the internet service, without wanting to shop. “Sometimes as a courtesy we give them free access, especially if they can handle it themselves,” says Bohra. “With newer users who need help with set up, we charge Dhs5 (US$1.40) for half an hour access. Although if they buy even a cup of tea in the food court they are entitled to use the internet free,” he adds. Bohra believes in the value of a free wireless internet service and sees a brighter future for this model that the paid hot spot model, especially in public areas like shopping malls. “It doesn’t make sense to charge for Wi-Fi, it should be an infrastructure cost,” says Bohra. “If you don’t make it free, you are limiting your customer base. It costs just Dhs2200 (US$600) per month for a 2Mbytes/s line, with Dhs1100 (US$300) for every extension. If other shopping centres like City Centre and BurJuman also offered the service it would help them to bring in more people,” he adds. Bohra also explains that with the technology in place to lock out users that consume excessive bandwidth, malls should not worry about spiraling costs. Although Wi-Fi Computer Zone is free to supply wireless internet to shoppers, revenue opportunities are limited by regulatory issues. The company is forbidden to act as a service provider to resellers based in the mall by United Arab Emirates (UAE) national operator Etisalat. This means that while customers can log on while in shops and try out equipment, Wi-Fi Computer Zone is not allowed to charge retailers for a similar service. “No sooner did we put up the Wi-Fi sign, than Etisalat sent us a letter saying that we should not sell services to shops, or else we would be acting as an internet service provider (ISP),” says Bohra. The restricted opportunities for generating extra revenue should not hit Wi-Fi Computer Zone too hard however, as its implementation is being heavily subsidised by Intel, with the processor giant stumping up the cash for the equipment needed. The hot spot is part of the vendor’s drive to proliferate Intel-certified wireless zones across the region. This is critical to Intel’s strategy to sell its Centrino platform, which builds Wi-Fi capability into notebooks. The vendor has come under fire in the past as hot post roll out struggled to keep pace with sales of Centrino-based notebooks. Bohra has acknowledged the importance of Intel’s input is making the wireless mall a cost effective option. Wi-Fi Computer Zone used WiSP Gulf as a systems integrator for the installation and deployed a solution that remarkably only requires a handful of devices to cover the entire mall. The installation centres on an Enterasys R2 access point, which features two add-in cards, one of which links back to the internet connection, while the other links to the users’ notebooks. The R2 goes through a Colubris TN3000 gateway device as it connects to the internet. The Colubris device takes care of the authentication of users and gives passwords. It also re-directs customers to a server where they are further authenticated using RADIUS and assigned a time limit. In terms of management, Bohra says he has one systems engineer spending approximately three hours per day maintaining the systems, with chores ranging from helping novice users to gain access to providing a first line of action against faults, with WiSP Gulf offering a second line of defence. “Initially the network was a little unstable, with power failures, people not being able to log on and getting locked off but for the last few weeks it has been rock solid,” says Bohra. Wi-Fi Computer Zone has invested in authentication technology to keep the wireless hot spot free from attack and mis-use but Bohra has played down the threat that exists in the Middle East. “We have a very different culture and there are very few people into hacking. If out of millions of people you have one hacker, it’s easy to identify him. Plus if the service is free to begin with, what incentive does an intruder have to hack the system?” Looking to the future, Wi-Fi Computer Zone has ambitions to extend the wireless mall concept to other properties in the city. The company has a vision to open shops that are divided into many sub-units according to brands with advanced sales tools and highly technical staff. Another key part of the firm’s ambitions to operate as an ISP as soon as the UAE market deregulates. “In India, there is deregulation, with lots of ISPs, and this drives innovation. The same should be true here,” says Bohra. “Besides deregulation will help Etisalat, it will increase the bandwidth they sell,” he adds.||**||

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