Wi-Fi access to VPNs goes global

Some of the largest service providers that cater to multinational customers are readying Wi-Fi-to-VPN access services that will span the globe.

AT&T, FiberLink, Infonet and MCI are in varying stages of building wireless LAN (WLAN) access services that will be integrated with each carrier's managed IP VPN offering.

Last week Infonet announced it is teaming with Gric Communications to offer a Wi-Fi service to managed remote access service customers. The Gric network includes 3,000 hot spots from service providers worldwide.

This builds on Infonet's agreement inked last month with Boingo Wireless. The Boingo deal covers software development and lets Infonet use Boingo's 5,000 Wi-Fi hot spots around the world.

Infonet's agreements with Gric and Boingo are the basis for its Wi-Fi access support for its MobileXpress remote-access customers. These users have the option of accessing the Internet or their corporate VPN using DSL, dial-up or ISDN. Infonet plans to add Wi-Fi to the mix of access options in the first quarter, says Greg Hayes, director of marketing for mobility at the carrier.

Equant, Infonet's closest competitor, has yet to reveal specific Wi-Fi plans. But the service provider says it will make an announcement next month and will support Wi-Fi to IP VPN access "in early 2004," a company spokesman says.

Meanwhile, Infonet is in the process of upgrading its client software to support Wi-Fi access and the appropriate security levels for each customer. "We're offering a single platform for authentication across all access methodologies," Hayes says.

One Infonet customer, J.M. Huber Corporation, likes the idea of one access platform, but wants to see more evidence that Wi-Fi is ready for enterprise traffic before its 1,000 remote users connect via public hot spots to its corporate network

Wi-Fi is a good, untethered option for users to access J. M. Huber's network when they're on the road, but a few things have to change before the company will deploy it, says Vince Solano, CIO at the Edison, N.J., supplier of engineered materials, natural resources and technology-based services.

"Right now it's too difficult for a non-technical business user to understand all the implications of security as they go from hot spot to hot spot," Solano says. "A provider that would be most favorable to me would be one that has the strongest security model and then manages the client's access experience seamlessly . . . even for dial-up folks."

FiberLink last week announced its Extend360 software tool that lets network administrators establish and enforce specific security policies for all remote users. The security policies range from requiring all Wi-Fi users to run anti-virus software to disallowing DSL users from deploying an instant-messaging service while connected.

The service provider uses hot spots from Airpath, Boingo and Wayport to let users securely link to their corporate LAN from around the world. FiberLink is one of a handful of providers that offer a Wi-Fi-to-VPN access service today.

MCI also offers Wi-Fi-to-VPN support, but only in the U.S. MCI announced its plans to support WLAN access to its IP VPN services through a deal with Wayport in July.

MCI says it will announce a second deal by the end of January that expands the carrier's Wi-Fi geographic reach outside the U.S. That deal also is expected to include client software enhancements that automatically will launch a user's VPN client and initiate a secure VPN tunnel over a Wi-Fi connection, the company says.

AT&T also is readying Wi-Fi access services, which it announced in July. AT&T says it's working with about 38 hot-spot providers and will offer access in 20 or more countries via 2,300 Wi-Fi access points by the end of December.

While its hot-spot agreements are in place, AT&T is working on its client software, says Rick Gretsch, director of global product management for IP services at the carrier.

"Regardless of where they use the service or if they use dial-up or Wi-Fi, customers will have a single user interface," he says. AT&T is still in the process of firming up pricing, but says users will pay for Wi-Fi access on either an hourly or per-session basis.

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Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.