Wi-Fi Roaming Gets One Step Closer

The Wi-Fi Alliance will work with equipment providers, carriers and device manufacturers to create a testing and certification program that will enable operators to eventually offer consumers the ability to roam on Wi-Fi networks. Kelly Davis-Felner, marketing director of the Wi-Fi Alliance, said the process of creating the program was beginning Tuesday, but the results of such action wouldn’t be put into practice until the first half of next year.

The next step for the Wi-Fi Alliance and the companies working on the problem is to agree to some common standards and frameworks around identifying devices with some type of subscriber information. The benefit for the consumer is potentially huge, as an ability to certify and authenticate Wi-Fi devices enables a carrier to track a device as it moves onto its Wi-Fi network, and allows users on the network without a break in connectivity or enduring a sign-in screen.

Carriers have been turning to Wi-Fi in recent years as the demand for mobile broadband has hammered their networks. AT&T (s t), for example, purchased Wi-Fi hotspot operators Wayport in 2008 after the iPhone (s aapl), which was exclusive to the AT&T network, brought cell reception to its knees. Now the operator relies on its Wi-Fi network to handle the brunt of the traffic from the iPad and other tablets. Even Verizon, (s vz) which was initially hostile to Wi-Fi, signed an agreement with Boingo to offer its subscribers access to Wi-Fi.

I’ve written that with their dependence on Wi-Fi, the next logical step for operators would be to implement some type of roaming agreement that allows a customer to transition from an AT&T Wi-Fi network to a Verizon Wi-Fi network seamlessly without going through multiple authentications. Or perhaps roaming agreements would allow a Wi-Fi customer from the U.S. to travel overseas through a roaming partnership made with an international operator. Cell companies could offer Wi-Fi to customers via a more seamless, cellular-style experience.

Carriers are apparently warming up to the idea, and the Wi-Fi alliance is now taking the first step to make that happen. By figuring out what carriers and device makers are willing to do in order to authenticate Wi-Fi devices, the Wi-Fi Alliance provides a mechanism to get carriers to trust unlicensed devices on their network by associating those devices with some kind of identity, much like a SIM card provides an identity for a mobile phone.

Members working toward this goal include Cisco (s csco), France-Telecom, Bel Air Networks and Marvell (s mrvl) among others. Davis-Felner states that the certification itself will be software-based and inexpensive. The certification process would be one of a series of tests offered by the Wi-Fi Alliance and would require the Wi-Fi radio to be able to support WPA2 security. Devices don’t have to be certified by the Alliance in order to use Wi-Fi.

Image courtesy Flickr user Adventures in Librarianship.