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Thu 4 Mar 2004 04:00 AM

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Perhaps not so hot

A lack of the necessary public infrastructure means that Centrino, Intel's wireless internet access system, is currently a technology without an application.

It was trumpeted as the biggest thing ever to happen in mobile computing — the ability to access the internet from your notebook PC with no wires involved. Now, as Intel’s much hyped Centrino technology approaches its first birthday, notebook manufacturers say that notebook PCs equipped with Centrino are selling like hot cakes.

There is, however, one problem. For Centrino computers to be able to connect to the internet, telephone and internet companies have to set up ‘hotspots’, little black boxes in public areas such as airports that make wireless connection to the internet possible. Here, the story is less than impressive.

In the UAE alone, Etisalat has committed to installing 50 such hotspots, which would cover major public places, by the end of the year. However, according to Intel’s latest figures, there are just five public hotspots certified to work with Centrino in the entire country, all located in Dubai.

Across the Middle East, it has only certified 24 to date, although it says there are others in the region that work with the technology.

“Wireless is just not there in the region,” says Christoph Schell, general manager of HP Middle East’s personal systems group. “The customer is paying for added value he can’t use. The bubble is going to burst here if the infrastructure isn’t created very soon. I am sure that a lot of people who buy a wireless-enabled laptop today can’t use the wireless function.”

According to Ahmed Khalil, Middle East regional manager for Toshiba’s computer systems division, Centrino notebook PCs are selling rapidly at a corporate level. However, the lack of hotspots is holding back sales in the home and small office markets.

Toshiba is urging Intel to do more to drive hot spot deployment. “Intel should be the driving force for this, we need to see more initiatives coming from them,” Khalil said, adding that Toshiba was “in continuous discussion” with Intel on the issue.

Intel executives said they were working closely with phone companies to encourage greater deployment. “We’ve been encouraging the telcos to provide more hotspots; the challenge is that as monopolies they don’t need to provide extra services,” said Ferruh Gertas, business development manager, Intel.

However, Intel said it is working with a number of IT services companies that are pushing through deals that will see the number of certified hotspots go above the 120 mark. This is expected to happen in the next couple of months.

A spokesman for Etisalat’s ISP arm, EIM, acknowledged that it has not launched many hotspots yet, but said this was because of “challenges” in the billing process.

Etisalat has banned hotel, café and store owners that install hotspots from charging customers for using them because to do so would contravene its monopoly. Until Etisalat overcomes its challenges, consumers will keep on paying for a technology that is of limited use.

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