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The next generation of Wi-Fi hotspots is coming

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The Wi-Fi Alliance on Wednesday revealed its plans to begin certifying devices under its new Passport Passpoint initiative, which ensures mobile phones – among other things – can log into Wi-Fi networks seamlessly. Now it’s the Wireless Broadband Alliance’s turn to pick up where its partner left off, integrating those devices and the access points into the mobile operator’s network.

The WBA has closed out trials of its Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) standard with some of the world’s biggest operators, including AT&T(s t), China Mobile (s chl), BT (s bt), NTT DoCoMo (s dcm) and Orange (s fte). Encouraged by the results, the WBA on Thursday said that the technology is now ready for commercial launch and expects the first NGH deployments over the next 12 months.

The Wi-Fi Alliance aims to negotiate the tricky connection between phone and access point without messing around with log-ins and registration pages as part of its Hotspot 2.0 and Passpoint initiatives. If a device is authorized to use a particular hotspot operator’s network, it simply connects.

From there NGH takes over, extending that handshake between phone and hotspot to the operator’s back-end systems where the connection can be treated like a regular cellular link. A Wi-Fi access point becomes just another cell on the operator’s network: data sessions and even voice calls can be passed from cellular to Wi-Fi, operator services like mobile wallet or media-streaming subscriptions can be maintained and the carrier can track data usage and even bill for Wi-Fi consumption (though many wouldn’t consider that positive).

Here’s what WBA Chair Chris Bruce had to say about the trial’s recent completion in the WBA’s statement:

The complementary relationship between Wi-Fi and mobile networks is finally becoming a reality. Next Generation Hotspots allow smartphones and tablets to automatically roam from the cellular network on to Wi-Fi hotspots thereby augmenting the coverage and capacity of both. Fixed and mobile operators alike are leading a Wi-Fi hotspot renaissance in a renewed effort to sate the seemingly unquenchable desire for ubiquitous broadband connectivity. What has made this trial so unique is that the key players from both the mobile operator community and the Wi-Fi ecosystem have actively come together and supported each other for this industry-wide program. The future is a great broadband experience that operates over all sorts of different technologies.

One of the biggest benefits of NGH will be its support for complex roaming arrangements. No operator is going to build Wi-Fi hotspots in every cranny of the world, so they will need to partner heavily to either share capacity or buy it from third parties. NGH will be able to negotiate those multi-leveled agreements, allowing devices to not only connect to multiple networks seamlessly but also prioritize which networks they connect to.

Expect to hear much more about Hotspot 2.0 and NGH next week when Mobile World Congress ramps up. As I wrote last week, Wi-Fi has become a huge theme at the show and threatens to overshadow LTE and HSPA as its dominant network technology discussed. All of the key operator players will be in Barcelona as will its major industry backers, Cisco System(s csco), Ericsson(s eric) (which just became an NGH fan by virtue of its BelAir Networks acquisition), Google(s goog), Intel(s intc), Ruckus Wireless, Aruba Networks and Accuris Networks.

2 Responses to “The next generation of Wi-Fi hotspots is coming”

  1. Dave Wright

    I’ve appreciated your recent pieces on Wi-Fi/Cellular convergence.

    I think it’s inaccurate to talk about voice roaming in the near term with HS2.0/NGH. There are still major technical challenges to handing off a CDMA or GSM voice session to VoIP/Wi-Fi or vice-versa. The only way to handle that currently are Wi-Fi tunneling solutions which encapsulate the cellular packets in IP, tunnel them to a gateway and then deliver them to the core MSC (sort of a “Wi-Fi BSC” architecture). VoLTE to VoWi-Fi handoff may be a different matter.

    I agree with Dean’s concerns about the connection mgr. implementations on the handsets. IMO the user should be able to define the preference order of home subscription services that they would like to use in authenticating to a visited HS2 hotspot. It’s probably safe to assume that many of the MNOs have a different view on user control of the Wi-Fi connection.

    Dave Wright

  2. Dean Bubley

    I think that the NGH initiative has some good points, but also some very severe flaws. Much will depend on the exact implementation on the handset. The biggest problem will come where the network/operator tries to force WiFi behaviour that the doesn’t fit with user’s preferences (or an app).

    For example, there needs to be a way to manage the situation where the phone tries to auto-connect to one WiFi AP, but the user would rather connect to a different one (eg for price, performance or privacy reasons). Ultimately the user needs to be in control, yet some standards are trying to subvert that. I even saw an announcement yesterday of a capability that will switch WiFi on/off on the handset without the user’s knowledge or permission.

    If this is done badly, there will be unintended consequences. For example, more people may choose WiFi-only devices like tablets, or “unlocked” smartphones where they own and maintain outright control over connectivity.

    In some cases auto-connection will be a benefit. But there need to be excellent UIs and controls for over-ride & transparency at a minimum.

    Dean Bubley
    Disruptive Analysis