Boingo exec: Enhanced cellular/Wi-Fi roaming to launch commercially in 2014

BARCELONA, Spain--The Wireless Broadband Alliance's seamless and secure cellular-to-Wi-Fi roaming initiative likely will not launch commercially until early 2014, and when it does AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) is expected of be a leading player, according to a senior executive from hotspot aggregator Boingo Wireless.

Christian Gunning, vice president of corporate communications at Boingo, said that right now wireless carriers and Wi-Fi operators are testing in labs the back-end integration for the WBA's Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) program, with work on the commercial aspects of the plan, such as billing, beginning in the third quarter. By early 2014, Gunning predicted, the initiative may be ready for commercial launch. He said he "would expect AT&T is probably going to be the first" U.S. carrier to launch the NGH service on its network, in part because of the extensive work its already done with the WBA and because it has a large proprietary Wi-Fi network of its own.

The program was supposed to be further along than it is now, but Gunning said that the second phase of NGH, the back-end technical work, did not get started until December, when it was originally scheduled to start early in the third quarter of 2012.

Other operators that have been making strides recently include China Mobile, KT, NTT DoCoMo and France Telecom Orange.  Gunning said the timing of commercial launches will depend on how trials proceed this year. "All the carriers are going to move at different paces," he said.

The NGH program is designed to do several things, both for end users and for carriers, Gunning noted. 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, the benefit is, in theory, two-fold from a Wi-Fi offloading perspective, Gunning said. Under NGH protocols, which the carriers involved are agreeing to and testing, Passpoint-certified phones that access Passpoint-certified network equipment will know which cell tower they are connected to. 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. Gunning said it will be up to the carriers about how transparent they will be with customers about their network management. "Most carriers want to do it in the background," he said.

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.

Last year the Wi-Fi Alliance's Certified Passpoint program launched with a broad set of approved devices from leading companies such as Ericsson's (NASDAQ:ERIC) BelAir Networks unit, Broadcom, Cisco, Intel and Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM). Passpoint-certified devices work and roam on the Hotspot 2.0 standard.

Gunning said any phone that shipped with Wi-Fi from the second half of 2012 until now is Passpoint-certified or upgradable. Carriers will need to push firmware updates to the devices to make them work on Passpoint-cerified network equipment. Gunning said the majority of the network equipment now being certified for Passpoint use is form Cisco.

For Boingo, the benefits of NGH are that it will likely lead to a sharp increase in the volume of wholesale Wi-Fi traffic it supports. Gunning said NGH could cannibalize the retail Wi-Fi industry but that wholesalers could make up for that by increasing volume. He said right now if someone is actively searching for Wi-Fi on their smartphone to switch off of cellular, it's something of a rarity. "If my phone is actively looking and I'm passively paying attention to it, half the people at an airport could do it," he said.

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