GSMA, WBA partner to ease roaming between mobile, Wi-Fi networks

The GSMA and Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) are collaborating to create a framework that the groups said will make roaming between mobile networks and Wi-Fi hotspots more seamless by next year.

The initiative does not have a formal name, but its goal is clear: to make roaming between a cellular network and a Wi-Fi network as simple and easy as it is today to roam between cellular networks. The GSMA and WBA will work to develop technical and commercial frameworks for Wi-Fi roaming so that smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices can roam onto Wi-Fi networks by using the device's SIM card for authentication. The groups said the plan will enable carriers to uniquely and securely identify users whether they are on a mobile or Wi-Fi network.

Currently, many carriers such as AT&T (NYSE:T) operate their own Wi-Fi networks, or they allow access to third-party hotspots such as those provided by Boingo Wireless, which said it supports the GSMA and WBA's announcement. However, often users must authenticate their device for each hotspot or pay a fee, which weakens partnerships between carriers and hotspot providers.

To tackle that, the initiative has agreed to a common approach for authenticating mobile devices on Wi-Fi hotspots. The groups will merge the GSMA's GPRS Roaming Exchange (GRX) and the WBA's Wireless Roaming Intermediary Exchange (WRIX) roaming models, which should allow devices to automatically log into Wi-Fi access points as long the carrier and hotspot provider have a business relationship. The GSMA and WBA said they will work toward aligning guidelines on security, billing, data offload, device implementation and network selection. The roaming framework is expected to be put in place in 2013, but may not be widely used for two to three years.

The partnership comes at a time when carriers are increasingly looking to offload data traffic from their macro networks. In 2011, 11 percent of global mobile data traffic was offloaded from cellular networks, and by 2016 this will increase to 22 percent, according to Cisco's Visual Networking Index Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast, released in February. By 2016, 31 percent of all handset and tablet data traffic will be offloaded to Wi-Fi networks, according to Cisco.

The groups said that Wi-Fi roaming will be based on the WBA's "Next Generation Hotspot" program and the Wi-Fi Alliance's "Passpoint certification" technology. The new roaming initiative is similar to one that the Wi-Fi Alliance and the WBA struck last year. Those groups combined their resources to address Wi-Fi hotspot roaming and authentication. Dan Warren with the GSMA said that the GSMA's new agreement with the WBA will work in conjunction with the roaming initiative announced last year by the Wi-Fi Alliance and the WBA. He said the GSMA's efforts essentially plug in carrier roaming agreements and SIM details into that previously established alliance.

Under the teaming from last year, 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 plans to introduce the certification program for next-generation hotspots in the middle of 2012. 

For more:
- see this GSMA release
- see this IDG News Service article
- see this Reuters article
- see this GigaOM post
- see this Boingo release

Special Report:  Hotspot 2.0: Bringing Wi-Fi traffic into the carrier's mobile network 

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