Apple iOS 7 support for Hotspot 2.0 could be a game-changer

Tammy Parker, FierceBroadbandWirelessA couple of weeks ago I wrote about several wireless-related features missing from Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) new iPhone 5s and 5c. On the list was the iPhones' lack of support for high-speed 802.11ac Wi-Fi.  However, it is worth mentioning that the new smartphones do include another particularly important Wi-Fi feature: Hotspot 2.0.

Ruckus Wireless pointed that out in a recent blog entry, in which the Wi-Fi gear provider predicted that support for 802.11u and Hotspot 2.0 "will likely prove to be the most significant new Wi-Fi feature in iOS 7."

As a quick refresher, Hotspot 2.0 is an interoperable Wi-Fi authentication and handoff technology that enables automatic, seamless roaming between Wi-Fi hotspots. The Wi-Fi Alliance offers a certification program for Hotspot 2.0 devices under its Passpoint brand. Devices that pass this certification testing can be referred to as "Passpoint devices." Because Passpoint certification is based on the Wi-Fi Alliance Hotspot 2.0 specification, one tends to see the terms "Passpoint" and "Hotspot 2.0" used interchangeably, though that is not technically accurate.

Anyway, the new iOS 7 operating system extends beyond Apple's iPhone 5s and 5c. According to Business Insider, iOS 7 will work on "iPhones that are iPhone 4 and later, Retina-display iPads, iPad 2, and the fifth-generation iPod touch."

This past Monday, Apple said 200 million iOS devices are already running the new operating system, less than one week after it was released on Sept. 18. Further, Fiksu said that of active iOS devices using its client apps, nearly 60 percent were already on iOS 7 as of Sept. 25.

"While not all of the 200 million Apple devices said to be updated to iOS 7 will support Hotspot 2.0 (older iPhones, iPads and iPods currently do not), it's certainly some obese number north of 50 or 60 million new Hotspot 2.0-capable mobile devices that have quickly appeared almost overnight," Ruckus said.

News that iOS 7 would support Hotspot 2.0 is far from new. It actually came out back in June, when FierceWireless reported on Apple's plans for the iOS 7 upgrade. Samsung's Galaxy S4, unveiled in March, also includes Hotspot 2.0 (and, by the way, 802.11ac). But now that Hotspot 2.0 is included in iOS 7 devices, both new and old, it is clear that Hotspot 2.0 is gaining an even more substantial footprint. The volumes of in-market devices equipped with this Wi-Fi roaming technology should make Hotspot 2.0 take off, convincing more phone makers to include it in their devices.

That momentum, in turn, could give a much-needed boost to the Wireless Broadband Alliance's nascent Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) effort, which is the implementation of Hotspot 2.0 on an operator's network to enable Wi-Fi connections to be treated just like regular cellular links, enabling secure and reliable offloading.

Operators and vendors are knee-deep in NGH trials, but there's really not much reason for NGH unless there are plenty of compatible Hotspot 2.0 Wi-Fi devices roaming across networks. Boingo Wireless recently tried to jumpstart the industry by launching the world's first commercial NGH Wi-Fi network at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

Ruckus also noted another key feature of iOS 7 is the updated Apple Configurator Utility (ACU), which now generates iOS Hotspot 2.0 mobile configuration profiles as well.

ACU enables an operator, authentication provider or enterprise to generate Hotspot 2.0 profiles, digitally sign them, and then send them to end users for installation. According to Ruckus, "This architecture has been widely used to provision Apple BYOD devices in the enterprise, and can now be used by operators to provision their subscribers with Hotspot 2.0 credentials as well."

The company said there is still no way to provision any type of policy or preference for how the credential is utilized, but the Wi-Fi Alliance is working on that for Release 2 of Hotspot 2.0.--Tammy