Thanks to Sprint, T-Mobile, Bright House and others, Wi-Fi's Passpoint standard comes of age

Mike Dano

The Passpoint standard, introduced in 2012, promised to aggregate the fractured, splintered landscape of W-Fi hotspots into a unified system of connected networks that users could easily and seamlessly move among.

And recent actions by T-Mobile US and Sprint indicate that at least some of the nation's biggest wireless carriers are using Passpoint to do just that.

First, and perhaps most importantly, T-Mobile confirmed that it is using the Passpoint standard in a Wi-Fi roaming trial with Bright House Networks, the nation's sixth largest cable operator. The roaming service will leverage T-Mobile's Voice over LTE (VoLTE) technology to allow its 50,000 customers in the Florida test to make and receive regular voice calls (as well as texts and data) over 34,000 Bright House public hotspots.

Thanks to Passpoint, "when Wi-Fi is turned on you will be automatically connected to Wi-Fi HotSpots throughout the city provided by Bright House Networks," T-Mobile said on its website.

T-Mobile said that it does not have a commercial relationship with Bright House Networks, and that its offering is just a technology trial. However, if T-Mobile does embark on commercial deals for Passpoint roaming, the carrier would likely pay W-Fi roaming providers like Bright House a few cents for each MB that T-Mobile's customers transmit over the cable operator's Wi-Fi network. For that expense, T-Mobile is able to provide its customers with more connections, potentially in hard-to-reach places like inside big buildings, at a much lower initial cost than by installing its own cell sites or small cells.

But for Bright House the test points to a potentially major new stream of revenue: as a provider of Wi-Fi roaming services. Just like regional wireless network operators like U.S. Cellular and C Spire Wireless, Bright House can now offer roaming services to the nation's wireless carriers anywhere it is able to install a Wi-Fi network. And because of the way Passpoint is designed, multiple wireless carriers can each roam onto Bright House's Passpoint hotspots while retaining some degree of control over their respective subscribers' experiences.

Like T-Mobile, Sprint, too, is making use of the Passpoint standard. Sprint announced in April a deal with Wi-Fi provider Boingo that will allow Sprint to seamlessly offload its customers' data traffic to Boingo's Wi-Fi networks at 35 major U.S. airports. Like T-Mobile, Sprint said its customers' handsets will be able to auto-authenticate with Boingo Wi-Fi hotspot connections -- and, like T-Mobile, Sprint said that its customers' data usage on Wi-Fi won't count toward their monthly data allotment.

"The agreement with Sprint announced last quarter has sparked interest from various industry players," Boingo's CEO David Hagan said last week. "As a result, we have Boingo Passpoint certified Wi-Fi network nodes with multiple companies in their labs, doing interoperability testing.

It's no surprise to see Wi-Fi aggregation companies working to bolster their holdings: Just today, iPass added Devicescape's 20 million hotspots to its own offering. IPass CEO Gary Griffiths told me the company is moving forward with Passpoint support in its network.

The Passpoint standard, sometimes called Hotspot 2.0, was created by the Wi-Fi Alliance and then adopted by the Wireless Broadband Alliance, which is comprised of wireless and cable operators. It essentially allows hotspot operators to join the same playing field as cable companies and wireless carriers. The result could be much better, speedier and potentially cheaper connections for mobile users; more business options for hotspot owners; more players offering Passpoint-enabled Wi-Fi access (like Google's Project Fi, for example); and more opportunities for companies selling Wi-Fi equipment.

The FCC's recent AWS-3 spectrum auction, which raised an astounding $41 billion in bids, showed the value of licensed spectrum. The Passpoint standard is helping to show the real value of unlicensed spectrum. --Mike | @mikeddano

Article updated August 10 with clarification from T-Mobile.