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Information Technology
Around the World with Internet Roaming

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Amjad Rafi

The information superhighway promises that anyone can communicate with anybody and access information databases anytime and anywhere in the world. For now, Internet users urgently need a service that allows them to roam networks.

By Ali Akbar
Oct 18 - 24, 1999

Today, voice, data and video information are carried over a multitude of networks such as the Internet, public switched data networks, cellular networks, satellite and even the plain old telephone network.

The Internet has been around for over 10 years but only in recent years has it caught the eye and imagination of businesses and the public. New technologies like the World Wide Web and HTML have removed the technical and geographical hurdles which limited access to the Internet. Offering ease-of-use features, these technologies have made it the choice of the masses for electronic communications. These technologies have also transformed the Internet from a text-based system into a slick, colorful information delivery channel with high-impact graphics and stereophonic sound.

The meteoric rise of the Internet over the past three years has seen more than 1.15 billion users worldwide hooking up to this highway. By the turn of the century, this number is expected to top one and a half billion. With its global reach, the Internet has transcended different language barriers, geography and cultures to reach a stage of interoperability that even cellular network operators only dream about today. The convergence of data and voice over the Internet has further bolstered its position as the forerunner of the information superhighway.

Global challenges

Though ubiquitous and extensive in its reach, the Internet poses challenges for true global communications. Until recently, no Iinternet service provider (ISP) or telco has been able to extend its Internet reach globally. What this means for an end user is that if he wants to access his Internet account while overseas, he has to pay the hefty price of long-distance calls and endure the software headaches of subscribing to accounts with local providers in those territories he is traveling in. What are the obstacles faced by ISPs in building a global infrastructure?

Disparate nature of the Internet - the Net was built based on a decentralized network model so that it could remain operational even when one of the network nodes is down. This architecture has also prevented the creation of a single global infrastructure.

Infrastructure costs - most ISPs are limited to a region or metropolitan area because of the expense of building an infrastructure.

International regulations - those providers who have grown nationally face the even greater obstacle of international telecommunications regulations when trying to expand internationally.

ISPs can only provide true global coverage if they establish peer-to-peer arrangements with one another to allow their customers to roam into their areas. Building a global infrastructure has proven to be an uphill task for individual ISPs to manage on their own.

The GRIC solution

The global reach Internet connection (GRIC) is an international partnership of more than 77 major ISPs and telcos in over 30 countries. Founded in June 1996, it is the world's first and only fully operational alliance of independent ISPs and telcos working together to deploy commercially viable global Internet communication services. The GRIC uses an authentication software solution that lets end users of GRIC members roam in each other's networks. Each GRIC member ISP installs the authentication server (AAS) and registers its domain names with a centralized routing server (ARS) so that they become known to other AASs for global Internet roaming.

For all the technical accomplishments, the GRIC alliance would not be possible without an efficient, built-in way to manage the revenue generated by Internet roaming and new services. To do this, it has a complete billing and settlement function for GRIC members. Located with the ARS, it centralizes and co-ordinates activities among all the alliance members. In the fast-changing and competitive environment of the Internet industry, any settlement solution that requires the creation of peer-to-peer contracts among the members would be prohibitively time consuming. Instead, all billing and settlement logging transactions that occur across the entire GRIC network are facilitated by the software, reconciling money owed and due, and then collecting and disbursing funds. While centralizing operations, the settlement software is distributed in nature. Logs are generated at both ends of every transaction, allowing for member reconciliation and for GRIC members to include all GRIC services on their regular customer statements. Redundant routing servers also ensure maximum data protection and integrity.

End user perspective

Similar to cellular phone roaming, an Internet user can transverse another ISP's territory, using his or her own account and password. The user is connected to his home ISP by making a local connection into the ISP network of the country that he is visiting. Internet roaming is thus becoming a key technology for easy mobile access to information and to download e-mail.

New roaming services for corporations are also becoming available using special software. This software solution provides the link between the Internet and corporation's intranet. By leveraging on the GRIC coalition, corporate users can dial into the intranet from anywhere in the world, at local charges. To implement this, an organization sets up an authentication server in its corporate network to verify a user requesting access to the intranet. Access requests are routed from the local GRIC member ISP who has provided a leased line connection to the corporation. All GRIC member ISPs have this intranet software residing in their systems to facilitate roaming and authentication processes.

Internet roaming for end users and corporations are only the start. New services like faxing, paging, telephony and videoconferencing are in the pipeline. In fact, Internet fax trials have already started with key ISPs and telcos taking part. Such a service offers tremendous advantages to corporations as costs of faxing can be staggering. A recent Gallup poll estimated that up to 50 per cent of corporate telephone bills go for faxes, and, for larger organizations, 50 per cent of fax traffic is intra-company. Intra-company fax costs can be virtually eliminated using the GRIC network, and inter-company fax costs can be slashed by up to 70 per cent.

The future and beyond

Today, AimQuest is the only company which has a fully fledged Internet TCP/IP based roaming service covering the globe. In fact, the GRIC has reached critical mass in terms of market and technology leadership. Its success has seen leading ISPs and telcos flocking to join the alliance. The 77-strong and growing GRIC membership today comprises some of the largest carriers like Telstra of Australia, Singapore Telecom, Malaysia Telecom, KDD of Japan, Asia Online of Hong Kong, iStar of Canada, US Netcom, Indosat of Indonesia and Easynet of the UK. While traditional telcos and ISPs rely on hardware solutions to build a worldwide communications infrastructure, a true global communications solution rests in its software innovation.