Wi-Fi networks are edging closer to becoming an extension of mobile networks through standards work that will add elements such as security, authentication and automatic roaming. But will operators wait for these standards given the fact that they desperately need data offloading solutions now?
Last month the Wi-Fi Alliance and the Wireless Broadband Alliance, which represents mobile operators, cable companies and others wanting to deploy service-provider-grade Wi-Fi networks, combined their resources to address Wi-Fi hotspot roaming and authentication. Under the teaming, the Wi-Fi Alliance's planned certification program for Wi-Fi equipment will combine with the WBA's inter-operator Wi-Fi roaming efforts. The alliance has been working on a Wi-Fi Certified hotspot program, otherwise known as Hotspot 2.0, to ensure that Wi-Fi devices can easily connect to hotspots in a security-protected, interoperable way. The alliance is defining technologies and certification requirements for Wi-Fi infrastructure devices and endpoints such as handsets, tablets and notebooks. The alliance plans to introduce the certification program in the middle of 2012.
The development is born out of the fact that mobile operators have been deluged with data traffic, and they are looking to offload that traffic onto Wi-Fi hotspots. But they want the same security and roaming features on those Wi-Fi hotspots as they do on their mobile networks.
Shipments of electronic products with embedded wireless local area networking technology (WLAN) will surpass 1 billion units for the first time ever in 2011 and then rise to more than 2 billion in 2015, according to iSuppli.
Wi-Fi roaming, and roaming revenues
Moreover, operators are interested in garnering roaming revenues from their company-owned Wi-Fi networks down the line, said Evan Kaplan, president and CEO of iPass, which recently introduced its Open Mobile Exchange platform to operators looking to make Wi-Fi roaming agreements.
"Operators need to offer a global Wi-Fi solution as part of their bill," Kaplan said. "They want to offload traffic domestically wherever possible, and they want relationships with as many Wi-Fi providers as they can so they can wholesale the best rates with them."
As such, the Wi-Fi Alliance and the WBA are using existing IEEE standards to make Wi-Fi a carrier-grade technology.
"The goal is to make connecting to Wi-Fi [on smartphones] as painless as connecting to a mobile network," said Stephen Rayment, chief technology officer of Wi-Fi vendor BelAir Networks. "Session mobility is very important. When you move from a mobile network to a Wi-Fi access point, your connection shouldn't drop."
Mobile operators are expected to initiate trials of the capability later this year, with mass deployments of Hotspot 2.0 expected next summer.
Many high-grade Wi-Fi access points will be able to support Hotspot 2.0 via a software upgrade. The more complicated piece of the puzzle is the handset, Rayment said. Devices will need a new protocol called access network query protocol (ANQP), which enables the device to determine what Wi-Fi networks a device can roam to. Rayment said device vendors are on board with the protocol, but it will take some time for suitable devices to promulgate through the market.
Waiting for Hostspot 2.0, or jumping in now
Does that mean operators might deploy proprietary solutions to get seamless roaming capability out the door?
"It's a two-edged sword," Rayment said. "You don't want bifurcation and splintering of markets. On all accounts, there is a lot of demand to get some standardization in place to get the project commercialized and get things out there. It's a hot market, so there is a creative tension between those two directions."
Earlier this month, Ruckus Wireless made a massive mobile data offload network deal with Japan's KDDI. The multi million-dollar agreement will see KDDI deploying more than 10,000 Ruckus Wi-Fi access points initially in more than 7,000 venues throughout Japan that will enable 3G CDMA Android phone users to automatically access and be authenticated to KDDI Wi-Fi hotspots, using credentials embedded within each phone over encrypted connections. By March 2012, KDDI plans to offer Wi-Fi in 100,000 locations, and 120,000 locations by June.
KDDI has created its own proprietary handset smart client to enable seamless roaming between its CDMA 3G network and its hotspots. Subscribers can download the software onto an Android smartphone to enable automatic roaming and authentication.
"The goal was to get a massive footprint as quickly as possible and at the lowest possible cost," said David Callisch, vice president of marketing with Ruckus Wireless. "The strategy is to tie it in with the existing core network and extend policies to any kind of traffic."
Still, Callisch believes KDDI's move to incorporate its own proprietary authentication and roaming solution is an anomaly. "Hotspot 2.0 is a big deal, and I think most operators are taking baby steps," he said. "They want to get these networks up and deployed to improve over time. It's a wireless LAN grab in terms of space. Right now most operators are just finding the assets on the street to deploy these networks."
AT&T on the fence
In the United States, AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) has been on the forefront of offloading mobile data traffic onto Wi-Fi, and has incorporated features such as authentication and automatic roaming into is vast array of hotspots and hotzones--high-capacity Wi-Fi networks located in widespread city zones--in markets such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
An AT&T company spokeswoman said that "the Hotspot 2.0 development and industry discussion is something we're watching closely, but we don't have any details or comments at this stage."