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AT&T's SIM-based Wi-Fi roaming sets stage for Hotspot 2.0

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AT&T's (NYSE:T) international roaming program for its mobile subscribers is the first to automatically connect customers to Wi-Fi hotspots via SIM authentication when roaming abroad, and it sets the stage for future business models based on Hotspot 2.0, Passpoint and Next Generation Hotspots (NGH).

When AT&T launched discount roaming packages back in November, it also granted customers on certain plans 1 GB of free Wi-Fi service each month at select AT&T International Wi-Fi hotspots. And because AT&T is using Accuris Networks' AccuRoam technology, those hotspots can be accessed seamlessly using SIM-based credentials on a smartphone or laptop, obviating the need for a user to launch a client or enter a username and password to gain Wi-Fi hotspot access.

"We see this as the beginning of a big trend of mobile operators leveraging Wi-Fi not just for domestic offload to ease congestion but in a roaming scenario as well to give better roaming rates to their end users and a better user experience," David Reeder, Accuris' vice president of sales and business development for North America, told FierceBroadbandWireless.

Accuris' AccuRoam authenticates Wi-Fi roamers in a manner similar to the authentication process that enables mobile users roam to a new cellular network. "The fact that we're using SIM-related information to do that authentication between the client and our server gives the end user and the mobile operator much more security," said Reeder.

From the mobile operator's viewpoint, a user logs into a Wi-Fi hotspot via what appears to be standard SIM-based authentication. From the Wi-Fi side, the authentication is more pseudo-SIM authentication because Wi-Fi hotspots are not yet set up to accommodate SIM credentials.

When a Wi-Fi hotspot identifies a visitor as an AT&T customer, it forwards an authentication request to AT&T's network. Accuris' technology gathers SIM information from the device and then uses that information to create a new, encrypted, dynamic username and password for the authenticated user, who can then seamlessly access the Wi-Fi hotspot.

AT&T is the first operator to sign on to use Accuris' AccuRoam platform for international Wi-Fi roaming. However, the vendor has close to a dozen trials going on with operators around the world, said Reeder. In addition, Accuris has another North American customer that is using AccuRoam for domestic offloading but not international roaming.

The concept of seamless SIM-based roaming and offloading is at the heart of industry efforts around Hotspot 2.0, Passpoint and Next Generation Hotspots (NGH). However, Accuris' pitch is that its platform can enable SIM-based authentication now on existing Wi-Fi access points with no Wi-Fi network modifications.

The Wi-Fi Alliance's Hotspot 2.0 Task Group developed key elements of the Wi-Fi Certified Passpoint certification program, which launched in June 2012. Passpoint functionality requires use of the EAP-SIM, with EAP standing for Extensible Authentication Protocol. The EAP-SIM must be supported by the Wi-Fi access point and mobile device, plus there must be a gateway that takes the SIM-based authentication request and validates that against the mobile networks' home location register (HLR).

AccuRoam serves that gateway function, said Reeder, noting Accuris is heavily involved in trials of next-generation hotspot technologies and fully supports Hotspot 2.0 as well the complementary Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) effort undertaken by the operator-driven Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA).

"But instead of operators waiting for 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 percent of the world's hotspots to support SIM-based authentication via Hotspot 2.0, which is going to take a long time to roll out--in some cases people have to rip out old APs and put new ones in--operators can get the seamless, secure authentication experience for their end users now," said Reeder.

Release 2 of the Wi-Fi Certified Passpoint certification program, slated for launch late this year, is expected to go beyond simple network discovery and selection and streamlined SIM Wi-Fi network access to include features such as a common provisioning methodology across vendors and provisioning of operator policy, enabling selection of the best Wi-Fi network based upon a mobile device's connection manager.

Meanwhile, AT&T is among the service providers that in December 2012 joined the WBA's Interoperability Compliancy Program, which is aimed at creating technical and commercial frameworks to advance Wi-Fi roaming across different service providers' networks.

For more:
- see this Accuris release

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