AT&T, MCI offer Wi-Fi access to enterprise VPN customers

Both companies are partnering with Wayport to offer service

AT&T Corp. and WorldCom Inc. have both added Wi-Fi access to their enterprise-class, remote-access virtual private network (VPN) services, capitalizing on a boom in Wi-Fi public-access networks worldwide.

AT&T announced today that it would offer wireless access to its enterprise clients who use its VPN service at more than 2,000 Wi-Fi locations in 20 countries in the fourth quarter. AT&T has partnered with GRIC Communications Inc., a Milpitas, Calif.-based provider of global remote access services, to offer the service.

AT&T already has a stake in the Wi-Fi game. AT&T, IBM and Intel Corp. own Cometa Networks Inc., which provides Wi-Fi service to McDonald's Corp. in New York. Yesterday, McDonald's rolled out Wi-Fi service in the San Francisco Bay area (see story), with Austin-based Wayport Inc. providing service in 75 Bay area restaurants.

WorldCom, which has rebranded itself as MCI in the wake of its bankruptcy, has announced plans to offer Wi-Fi access for its enterprise VPN customers through an agreement with Wayport. Dick Rossi, a GRIC spokesman, said his company also has service agreements with Wayport, which are intended to allow AT&T enterprise customers to tap into "hot spots" operated by Wayport.

Public-access Wi-Fi networks operate under the industry-standard 802.11b protocol, which provides a raw data rate of 11Mbit/sec. at a distance of 100 to 300 ft. Wi-Fi network operators install access points in hot spots located in high-traffic areas such as restaurants, airports, hotels, convention centers and -- in Europe -- railroad stations and offer service at an hourly rate or through monthly, flat-rate pricing.

Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., estimates there will be slightly more than 50,000 Wi-Fi hot spots worldwide by the end of 2003 and more than 151,000 by the end of 2005.

Despite phenomenal growth in public Wi-Fi access over the past two years, Chris Kozup, an analyst at Meta Group Inc., also based in Stamford, said he has seen little interest in the service so far from enterprises. Kozup said none of his clients have signed on for the kind of companywide subscriptions that carriers such as AT&T, GRIC, MCI and Wayport need to justify their investments. Rossi said that only a "small percentage" of enterprises use GRIC's Wi-Fi service.

But interest in Wi-Fi is growing, and McDonald's seems intent on capturing that interest outside the U.S. The company signed an agreement Monday to deploy Wi-Fi service to 140 stores in Singapore. In addition, according to Sharon Paintin, a spokeswoman for McDonald's Australia, the company plans to offer Wi-Fi access in all 725 McDonald's in that country.

She said McDonald's Australia doesn't have a timeline for the deployment. In March, McDonald's Australia started negotiations with Telstra Corp. Ltd. in Sydney to provide the service. Further details about the planned service weren't immediately available.

Neither AT&T nor MCI provided pricing for their new Wi-Fi services. Wayport has a flat rate of $29.95 per month.

Rossi said GRIC currently has a list price of roughly $20 for 50 hours of Wi-Fi access for enterprise clients who use the service in their home countries. When abroad, prices for Wi-Fi access can run about $12 an hour. Depending on volume, however, those prices can be "deeply discounted," Rossi said.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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