LONDON (12/02/2003) - In a deal intended to allay network managers' fears over Wi-Fi in the enterprise, wireless network operator The Cloud is offering to help build wireless networks in offices. The so-called Open Enterprise scheme, revealed on Dec. 1, removes IT staff's objections to so-called "guest networks", the company claims.
"Take a merchant bank," said Niall Murphy, technical director of The Cloud. "Up to 30 percent of people in that building are not employees. Many are contractors, or work for partner companies." The Cloud -- which appears to be the world's second largest Wi-Fi provider -- is offering to set up separate VLANs, so that employees can use applications on the company's wired network, while visitors can only access the Web.
Often presented as one of the main benefits of Wi-Fi in the office, these guest networks -- based on access points in meeting rooms or reception areas -- have not been met by much enthusiasm from IT staff. The VLAN technology behind it is well understood, and within the grasp of any competent network manager, but the objections are practical, says Murphy.
The main problem is technical support, he says: "Visitors will have many different kinds of devices and service needs." Once Wi-Fi goes beyond early adopters, these will be people with little understanding of the technology, he explained: "The enterprise IT manager does not want to take on support of these people -- the helpdesks are already maxed out." Indeed, some leading Wi-Fi vendors see Wi-Fi prevention as a market opportunity.
"We route the visitors round the IT department," said Murphy. Anyone who does not have access rights to the company network will be routed to the Cloud's usual "landing screen", and invited to log in, after which time they use the Cloud's network -- paying for it through their own company, and using The Cloud's support if needed.
The arrangement also takes away other concerns, said Murphy. The visitors do not add to the firm's bandwidth costs, and any legal issues with their Internet use are between them and the Cloud. The arrangement could also let a company share its Wi-Fi network with vending machines or security cameras operated by other companies on its premises, he said.
Like other vendors trying to goad IT managers into Wi-Fi action, Murphy applied the stick as well as the carrot: "They know they have to do it, otherwise users will bring in their own access points."
The Cloud also announced it will offer SIM authentication, where the SIM card from a phone can be used to authenticate a user and charge Wi-Fi use to the phone bill. While Infonet Services Corp. and Orange SA are offering SIM authentication in other countries, mobile operators in the U.K. are not offering SIM authentication for Wi-Fi services, said Murphy.
At the announcement, The Cloud performed two demonstrations: a combination Wi-Fi/GPRS card (from Option NV) was shown roaming between the two services at will, and voice over Wi-Fi was demonstrated -- as usual by a call to an embarrassed person in the company's HQ.
Murphy claimed that The Cloud now has nearly 3,000 hotspot locations, said Murphy which must put it close the "3,000-odd" claimed by market leader T-Mobile, a division of Deutsche Telekom AG. With 100 more put in each week, maybe the positions are due to reverse; however, The Cloud still only claims to be the largest Wi-Fi provider "in Europe."