The Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), whose goal it is to develop and promote carrier-class Wi-Fi solutions, wrapped up its Global Congress event in San Francisco earlier this month. As with all WBA events, the service provider community showed up in full force. Device vendors could also be noticed as evidenced by the appearance of MediaTek, one of the world’s largest suppliers of mobile device chipsets.
We are at an exciting point in the evolution of Wi-Fi as a carrier-class solution. It has some great pluses as a technology including access to greater than 600 MHz of spectrum, available on all data-centric devices, deployed everywhere that people congregate, excels in high-density environments, and it is very inexpensive. Where it suffers is in the user experience when roaming.
The road to roaming
Roaming refers to the experience we all enjoy on cellular, where you can get off a plane anywhere in the world and your smartphone works. The process of identifying roaming partners and authenticating is all handled automatically.
Now we need to do the same for Wi-Fi roaming, and you don’t need to leave home to enjoy the wonders of roaming. You just need to be in a part of town where your phone doesn’t see an SSID that it recognizes. We’ve all had the experience of manually sorting through dozens of new SSIDs until we find one that might connect us to the Internet. The “force” is usually helpful here.
The goal of the Wi-Fi Alliance’s (WFA) Hotspot 2.0 Release 1 specification is to make Wi-Fi roaming as easy to use and secure as cellular. With Hotspot 2.0 technology, your smartphone can now automatically sort through all available APs until it finds one that it can roam with. There is no user involvement.
The pieces are all starting to come together from a technology perspective. Hotspot 2.0 capable APs are shipping from all the expected Wi-Fi equipment suppliers. You’ll know that the AP is Hotspot 2.0 capable if it carries the WFA’s Passpoint certification. Passpoint certified mobile devices are also starting to emerge from both Samsung and LG. Meanwhile, the industry eagerly awaits word on Passpoint support on the very popular Apple iPhone as well (which is expected in IOS 7).
HotSpot 2.0 is one of the most important initiviates in recent history to reach the wireless industry. It allows the great strengths of Wi-Fi technology to finally be brought to bear on the challenge of enabling mobile networks to easily scale to address the tremendous growth in data traffic.
It also lets users have an “always best connected” experience no matter where they might be in a building or in the world. And it does this without user involvement. For Wi-Fi to takes it place alongside LTE/3G as one of the cornerstone technologies of the mobile Internet, it must provide the same seamless roaming experience that we all enjoy with cellular.
Next up for the industry is to address the business challenge of working out roaming agreements and of course settlements. And unlike in the cellular world, these Wi-Fi roaming agreements will include wireline operators, cable operators, and of course mobile network operators. Basically any operator with a pervasive Wi-Fi footprint.