22 August 2002 The roll out of public wireless local area networks (WLANs) in Europe has been given fresh impetus by a deal between systems giant Hewlett-Packard (HP) and mobile operator T-Mobile. The two have said they will extend their US alliance with coffee shop chain Starbucks to cover stores in Germany and the UK.
Under a six-month pilot scheme, an unspecified number of shops in Berlin and London will be equipped with WLAN equipment. Users will be given a one-time 24-hour pass to try the service, but will not be charged to download data.
It is anticipated that T-Mobile, which operates more than 1,000 WLANs in Starbucks shops in the US, will eventually seek tariffs in Europe comparable to the monthly subscription rates of between $30 (€30.56) and $50 (€50.98) that it charges in the US.
The timing of the joint announcement is significant. In recent months, a number of European countries have lifted restrictions on the commercial use of the unlicensed section of the radio spectrum where WLANs operate. Essentially, these rules banned WLAN service providers from charging users to download data.
And in a bid to fuel growth in the burgeoning market and prevent the US extending its recently acquired wireless lead over Europe, European Union officials are pushing regulators in France, Italy, Spain, Greece and Luxembourg to also lift their restrictions.
There is a danger that WLANs could threaten the adoption of third-generation (3G) mobile data services. One key potential source of revenue, say analysts, would have been business people downloading data over 3G networks while sitting in a coffee shop or airport lounge. Now, many of those premises are being kitted out with WLANs instead.
One solution, for operators such as T-Mobile, which owns a number of 3G licences, will be finding a way to allow seamless ‘roaming’ and customer billing across WLAN, digital and 3G networks. Many technology companies are working on roaming software and last month a Canadian operator said it had successfully tested such a product.
T-Mobile said that Starbucks customers can now access its WLAN service at around 1,200 stores in the US. The carrier, owned by Deutsche Telekom, said it will add a further 800 Starbucks stores by the end of 2002.
Any customer of its T-Mobile HotSpot-branded service is able to access the Internet at data transfer speeds of up to 11 megabits per second.