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section heading icon     overview

This note considers wireless access to the net in Australia, New Zealand and overseas. It also discusses satellite access

It covers -

  • this overview - some questions and statistics
  • corporate wireless networks, operated by SMEs, large businesses, academic and other institutions and government agencies
  • public and commercial hotspots and hotzones
  • WISPs - wireless internet service providers (aka WISPs) and satellite internet
  • community wireless networks
  • mobile phones and the net
  • satellite - satellite-based access to the internet
  • aircraft - access to phones, email and the web on aircraft and other vessels
  • municipal - the municipal wifi movement
  • theft - legislation and prosecutions regarding 'wireless internet theft'

It supplements the broader discussion of wireless elsewhere on this site in relation to Networks & the Global Information Infrastructure, cybercafes & telecentres and the evolution of Australian & New Zealand telecommunications.

section marker     introduction

Wireless internet access has been recurrently touted as a solution for 'last mile' connectivity in suburban Australia. In practice it has attracted most attention within a handful of metropolitan areas (in particular central business districts) and venues that attract consumers willing to pay a premium for secure access (eg airports).

In 2004 Ovum forecast that wireless access would account for around 10% of Australian business and consumer broadband connections within three years, according to telecommunication analysts, garnering some 298,000 of 3.1 million broadband connections.

That is steep growth from the beginning of 2004, when only a handful of ISPs offered wireless connectivity. At that time there were several thousand non-public wireless local area networks in offices, schools and other entities across Australia and New Zealand. That number is growing. Outside those locations 'wireless' for many people meant public hotspots - the domain of an estimated 15 commercial providers in Australia, sharing some $500,000 revenue for upwards of three hundred 802.11-based wireless internet access "primary locations (often encompassing multiple wireless hotspots)" across Australia. Users often had multiple subscriptions because of the lack of ubiquitous roaming.

Over the past two years we have seen the emergence of wireless ISPs, typically using licensed radio spectrum and aimed at business/residential users who primarily access the net from one location.

Community wireless networks (sometimes badged as 'freenets)' offer non-commercial access to small-scale local networks. One Western Australian advocate comments -

It's a collection of people who want to be able to interconnect their computers without having to be beholden to telecommunications carriers and ISPs.

For many people their main exposure to wireless internet is via their mobile phones, in particular sending/receiving SMS. The Australian mobile phone market grew by around one million new subscribers per year from 1994 (with peak growth in 1995, when around two million subscribers joined). In 2000 the number of mobile phone accounts had reached 8.5 million, compared to around 10.6 million fixed lines in use at that time as "main lines" (with upwards of a further 11 million lines in use). By December 2002 that had increased to 12.5 million mobile phone subscriptions, with 72% of all households having access to a mobile.

section marker     technologies

In principle a wide range of technologies are available for the delivery of digital information other than through a wire or fibre. Elsewhere on this site we have thus highlighted curiosities such as the Internet Engineering Task Force RFC for transmission via carrier pigeon.

In practice wireless access to the net involves a handful of technologies, either terrestrial or satellite based and labelled with names such as Wi-Fi or WiMax.

As the name suggests, Wi-Fi networks use technology under the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 802.11b or 802.11a standard to provide wireless connectivity, with the 'wireless' as a bridge across the gap between the user's device and the fibre or copper linking the base station to the rest of the net.

A Wi-Fi network can be used to link personal computers and other devices to each other without cable and to wired networks. Wi-Fi operates in the 2.4 and 5 GHz radio bands, with an 11 Mbps (802.11b) or 54 Mbps (802.11a) data rate or with products that contain both bands (dual band). Although they have a limited range - typically line of sight within a 100 metre radius - in close proximity to a base station a network can offer performance similar to the wired ethernet used in many organisations for accessing the net.

Wi-Fi is affected by competition between base stations (often on adjacent floors in an office or other building) on similar wavelengths and with other devices such as microwave ovens and cordless phones. Base stations transmit at about two-tenths of a watt, in contrast to WiMax (at up to 30 watts).

WiMax (also badged as Wi-Max or WiMAX) is a more recent development with a wider range, promoted as an alternative to cable and DSL in delivery of last mile broadband access to hotzones rather than hotspots. Those zones are sometimes characterised as Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs), in contrast to Wi-Fi Local Area Networks (LANs).

The expectation is that WiMax will allow fixed and portable service applications for multiple users, in a range of up to 50 kilometres (typically 7 km) without needing a direct line of sight to a base station. Promoters have thus suggested that WiMax - which has similarities with the current IEEE 802.16 standard - will permit throughput of up to 75 Mbps shared across hundreds of corporate users with T1-type connectivity and thousands of residences with DSL-type connectivity. It is projected that some flavours of WiMax will be incorporated in notebook computers and PDAs from early 2006; currently WiMax receivers are akin to a small satellite dish.

section marker     development

Internet access through hotspots in Australasia - like that in Europe and North America - took off in closing stages of the 1990s dot-com boom.

That reflected -

  • falling prices for wireless cards in laptops (and, more broadly, in other personal computers), coupled with growth of the laptop market
  • falling prices and increased availability of wireless personal digital assistants (PDAs)
  • investor willingness to put money into hotspots and the infrastructure, including billing systems, that would allow roaming by commercial customers
  • relaxation of regulatory constraints
  • competition among a handful of ISPs and support from particular hardware vendors, notably Cisco, Intel, Juniper and hp
  • media coverage underpinning perceptions that wireless access had desirable attributes (eg was funky or made business sense for individual users and organisations) or did not involve inappropriate risks
  • appreciation among ICT managers in government, business, academic and other organisations that WiFi offered a cost-effective mechanism for construction and maintenance of local area networks (LANs) - discussed here - potentially with bridges from those intranets to the internet

It also reflected the slow uptake of specialist devices such as the RIM Blackberry, with many consumers apparently deterred by perceived high hardware acquisition and ongoing service costs.

Commercial developments have coincided with

  • trials by local government (eg in Brisbane and Philadelphia) of free access
  • moves to build comprehensive fibre & wireless networks in some central business districts (eg in Adelaide)
  • rollout of wireless intranets across many academic institutions (eg the Australian National University and Melbourne University), health organisations and businesses.

Most wireless networking in Australia and New Zealand has involved corporate networks - ie facilities intended for use only by the particular organisation's staff/affiliates - and accordingly do not enable public access to the individual intranet or wider internet. (In practice, deficiencies in network establishment and maintenance mean that many wireless intranets are open to casual or malicious users - without authorisation - an issue explored in discussion of wardriving).

The emergence of public commercial and free wireless access has been uneven and atomistic.

The unevenness reflects timing, with the drying up of capital that would be required for rollout of national chains of hotspots, ie in all major locations across Australia and New Zealand. That 'breadth and depth' is important for large-scale user adoption, given that some operators currently only have one node in a city such as Brisbane and that being online while travelling interstate can require switching from one operator to another. In practice many potential customers are merely going without and instead relying on mobile phones (by 2002 some 72% of all households had access to a mobile).

Attrition saw the departure or reorientation of some operators. SkyNetGlobal for example, started roll out hotspots in some airport lounges and Rydges hotels but experienced funding difficulties and was acquired by Telstra in 2002. AirPortal launched in 1999 with an emphasis on "providing innovative solutions to the 'road warrior' ... setting up connectivity solutions for corporate users to communicate no matter where they go". Rebadged as Aeris Entertainment it has "followed the path of the corporate business traveller into the Hospitality market and began to position its services into Hotels" with a Digital Video on Demand solution.

section marker     the industry

The industry in both countries is being driven by five factors -

  • support by hardware and software providers for creation and maintenance of hotspot networks and wireless ISPs, implicitly in an effort to build the market and reinforce acceptance of particular standards
  • second-guessing by established telephony operators and ISPs, with minor investments in wireless ISPs and deployment of hotspots in alliance with hotel or food service chains
  • opportunistic establishment of isolated hotspots - often on a free access basis - by cybercafe owners
  • creation of global roaming alliances (eg between Azure and US-based Boingo, Telstra and Germany's T-Mobile and BT) that allow premium - ie commercial - customers to seamlessly go online in locations across the globe
  • exploration of opportunities for mobile commerce, explored in our Economy Guide and in Albert Efimov's thoughtful 2002 Rabbit's Return: An Exploration of WiFi Business Models (PDF)

section marker     maps, searches, chalking and driving

The following pages of this note highlight online maps of varying accuracy and comprehensiveness. They include

hotspot-locations.com - Australia and New Zealand

wi-fihotspotlist.com - Australia and New Zealand

Community Wireless Node Database Project - Australia

Community Wireless Node Database Project - New Zealand

Individual Australian and overseas network operators offer lists on their sites, for example Optus Wireless and Telstra.

The Whereis.com.au directory identifies adjacent hotspots for address searches in Australia.

The patchiness of mapping, volatility of hotspot provision (in particular the arrival and departure of wireless cybercafes) and geek culture has led to pursuits such as warchalking and wardriving, discussed here.





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