Roaming: the missing piece to the smartphone-Wi-Fi puzzle

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We have written a lot about the new generation of hotspots coming out this year that will make it snap for your smartphone to connect seamlessly to your mobile operator’s Wi-Fi hotspots. But what about hotspots that your carrier doesn’t manage? It turns out the world of Wi-Fi roaming is a whole new bag of problems — problems global wireless standards bodies vowed on Tuesday to solve.

If Wi-Fi is really to going to be going to be a key component of mobile broadband networks, operators need to figure out how to get dozens if not hundreds of disparate Wi-Fi networks to interoperate. Otherwise operators won’t be able to take advantage of the tremendous economies of scale gained by sharing Wi-Fi infrastructure. An operator like AT&T could vastly extend its already considerable Wi-Fi reach by partnering with a hotspot provider like Boingo or tapping into the huge hotel networks offered by Hilton, but if you have to log in and authenticate your device to each new hotspot then such partnerships are pointless.

The GSM Association and the Wireless Broadband Alliance are trying to tackle that issue by merging the mobile and Wi-Fi industries’ two roaming frameworks. In the mobile world it’s called the GPRS Roaming Exchange, or GRX, while in the Wi-Fi it’s known as the Wireless Roaming Intermediary Exchange, or WRIX. Separately GRX and WRIX are great at handling the myriad of roaming arrangements between mobile operators and between Wi-Fi hotspot providers, but today there’s no crossover, said Dan Warren, director of technology for the GSMA.

By mashing together the two exchange frameworks, the GSMA and WBA hope to create a set of protocols and commercial agreements that will allow any mobile device to automatically log into any Wi-Fi access point so long as the mobile operator and hotspot owner have a business relationship. The common ID will be the SIM card.

Building that common framework, however, will take time considering the hundreds of mobile and hotspot service providers involved. So while the Wi-Fi Alliance will start certifying the first Hotspot 2.0 devices in July under its Passport Passpoint program and the first next-generation access points will be available in late 2012, the roaming frameworks won’t be in place until 2013, Warren said.

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