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AT&T harps on need for Wi-Fi roaming agreements

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AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) is pushing for more international Wi-Fi roaming agreements between carriers and Wi-Fi providers as part of a wider push to make it more seamless for carriers and their customers to offload traffic from cellular networks onto Wi-Fi.

Speaking this week at the Wi-Fi Global Congress in London, Bill Hague, AT&T's executive vice president of international, said such agreements will give more customers easier access to high-grade, authenticated Wi-Fi networks. He said AT&T fully backs the work of the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) and GSMA to make roaming between cellular and Wi-Fi networks a new norm.

"Roaming agreements will increase revenue for everyone, and far more than anyone could do individually," he said, according to Mobile World Live. "In much the same way as GSMA standardization secured its international success, so we need to do the same with Wi-Fi."

In April, AT&T and Boingo Wireless announced a reciprocal Wi-Fi roaming deal that will give AT&T subscribers access to Boingo's global network of Wi-Fi hotspots in major international airports. Additionally, Boingo customers traveling in the United States will get access to AT&T's Wi-Fi hotspot network throughout the country, including at airports, restaurants, sporting arenas and retail locations.

The WBA's main effort in this area is the Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) program, which is expected to truly get going commercially next year and has the backing of the likes of China Mobile, KT, NTT DoCoMo and France Telecom Orange, in addition to AT&T.

The NGH program is designed to do several things, both for end users and for carriers. For customers, their phones will be able to jump onto the best network available, whether that be Wi-Fi or the cellular macro network, without them having to actively switch networks. 

For carriers, Passpoint-certified phones that access Passpoint-certified network equipment will know which cell tower they are connected to, using SIM-based authentication. (Last year the Wi-Fi Alliance's Certified Passpoint program launched with a broad set of approved network gear. Mobile devices that are Passpoint-certified can work and roam on the Hotspot 2.0 standard.) Carriers can set rules that would push cellular traffic from the macro network onto NGH Wi-Fi hotspots if a phone is connected to a congested tower or a particular tower at a certain time of day when network congestion is high. It will largely be up to the carriers about how transparent they will be with customers about their network management.

Secondly, carriers will be able to cut down on roaming costs, both by getting more data ARPU from international Wi-Fi roaming and domestically, especially for smaller carriers that will be able to reduce cellular roaming by pushing consumers onto Wi-Fi networks more seamlessly.

There is still a lot of work that needs to be done to get the NGH program off the ground. "The focus this year is on seamless session continuity [between Wi-Fi and cellular]," said GSMA CTO Alec Sinclair, according to Mobile World Live. "There are no commercial deployments of this, so we're not there yet."

For more:
- see this Mobile World Live article
- see this Midsize Insider article
- see this CNET article

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Advanced trials of Next Generation Hotspots slated for Q4