Sprint PCS fires roaming salvo

Carrier begins by offering access to Wayport, Airpath hot spots

Mobile workers can choose speed or ubiquity for wireless data, with costs that range from predictable to astronomical. A new deployment by Sprint PCS might limit bills and turn Wi-Fi into the preferred data bursting option.

Sprint PCS intends to build 1,300 of its own Wi-Fi hot spots by the end of 2003 using expertise it garnered in unwiring hotels, universities, and enterprises over the last two years in partnership with Cisco. Before they build out their own network, they will offer access to Wayport and Airpath Wireless’s 800 current hotel and airport hot spots starting this summer.

But Sprint PCS isn’t just building a network. It’s firing the strongest salvo yet in the path to roaming across Wi-Fi networks by stressing that they will allow roaming onto their network. “A robust roaming marketplace is really important to the long-term survival and health of Wi-Fi in the public space,” said Jason Guesman, Sprint PCS’s director of business marketing.

“No single operator will own all the tier one hotspots” in business locations like hotels, airports, and convention centers, Guesman said. “It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when Wi-Fi will be built out in those hot spots.”

A scattered set of separate national Wi-Fi wireless networks operates several thousand hot spots across the United States, and although aggregators like Boingo Wireless, GRIC, and iPass provide standard rates for access, these aggregators haven’t had the market pressure necessary to pry open networks run by T-Mobile HotSpot or AT&T Wireless.

T-Mobile operates 2,700 hot spots in Starbucks, Borders outlets, and the San Francisco International Airport. AT&T Wireless resells Wayport service and operates the Denver and Newark airports under the GoPort brand. Neither network allows outside roaming onto their exclusive locations, although T-Mobile and AT&T Wireless will be required to eventually offer neutral-host access in San Francisco and Newark, as Wayport provides in Minneapolis/St. Paul and LaGuardia, currently.

Although Sprint PCS has made strong statements on roaming, the market will tell how they react when other cellular companies — still sorting out the 'whens' and 'ifs' of real third-generation cellular data rollouts — want access to their networks.

“While a carrier can resell from smaller carriers, like ISPs [Internet service providers], from a competitive perspective it doesn’t make sense to resell to their direct competitors,” said Sarah Kim, a wireless analyst with The Yankee Group in Boston.