Google’s Orion Wifi aims to fix Wi-Fi roaming

Wi-Fi smartphone
Orion Wifi is working with cellular carriers and others to make it easier for consumers to hop onto public Wi-Fi systems. (Getty Images)

While the Wi-Fi industry has been deploying Passpoint for years, it’s slow going. That and other efforts to make Wi-Fi roaming as easy as cellular lacked automation, which is where a new platform from Area 120, Google’s in-house incubator for experimental products, comes in.

A team within Area 120 is pitching an easy way for public venues, such as a grocery store, medical office or mall, to sell Wi-Fi capacity to cellular carriers. Called Orion Wifi, the platform complements the work being done in the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) on the emerging OpenRoaming standard.

In fact, the director of Orion Wifi, Raj Gajwani, recently joined the WBA board of directors. Gajwani started leading a team within Area 120 a couple years ago to work on the Wi-Fi roaming problem. “It really is kind of like a lab project that’s come to life as a product,” he told FierceWireless.

Here’s how it works. Orion Wifi will work with public venues that have high-quality commercial Wi-Fi networks to get them hooked up to the new platform. The idea is for consumers who visit these venues to automatically get connected rather than being forced to choose among a list of public Wi-Fi networks, some of which can lead to bad or insecure connections.

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Venue owners will get paid based on the amount of data – gigabytes – that the carriers’ subscribers use, and carriers pay for the capacity, according to Gajwani. Even smaller venues, such as a shopping plaza, food court or downtown business improvement district, can participate and profit, he said. “Because the system is highly automated and based on existing standards, it’s free and easy to set up,” he added.

RELATED: Tech bigwigs drive new global Wi-Fi roaming initiative

Passpoint, also known as Hotspot 2.0, has matured to the point where most every cell phone, tablet and laptop supports it. Most commercial enterprise Wi-Fi networks also have it. But to get contracts worked out between venues and carriers is another matter, and one that isn’t short and simple.

Traditional Wi-Fi offload can take a year or more to set up and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in labor costs, with lengthy negotiations involving lawyers and accountants.  That's why Wi-Fi offload has mostly been limited to very high-traffic locations like airports and stadiums.  The focus here is making it easy on the venue – as easy as listing a spare bedroom on Airbnb, Gajwani suggested.  

Google operates Google Fi, which uses T-Mobile’s network for cellular connections; Google Fi will be among the first to use Orion Wifi, along with Republic Wireless, another “Wi-Fi first” type of company. They’re in conversations with others and have approached the Big 3 wireless carriers, but it’s a little too early for them to sign on, according to Gajwani.  

Orion Wifi also is working with Wi-Fi manufacturers like Cisco, CommScope (Ruckus) and Juniper Mist to make sure Orion Wifi is compatible and easy to deploy with their gear. Boingo is using Orion Wifi to expand its connectivity offering to travelers and visitors across its U.S. footprint, and commercial real estate entities like 5G LLC, GigaMonster, CA Ventures, Single Digits and Connectivity Wireless are poised to enable Orion Wifi at venues across the country.

The role of CBRS

What about using Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS) to connect venues? Google is a big supporter of CBRS; it’s operating as a Spectrum Access System (SAS) administrator. It fills needs that Wi-Fi and licensed LTE/5G do not. And Gajwani said if someone is considering CBRS – or a distributed antenna system (DAS), for that matter – to improve connectivity, Orion Wifi won’t change that decision. CBRS will be a big step up from Wi-Fi for some use cases, he said.

But it’s not “either/or.” If a venue has an existing Wi-Fi network, it should turn on Orion Wifi as well, according to Gajwani. “Orion Wifi is a great complement to DAS or CBRS,” he said. “It adds another layer of connectivity, and it’s ‘free revenue’ from your existing Wi-Fi asset.”

In the long term, the expectation is that most locations in the U.S. will be served by a healthy combination of Wi-Fi, CBRS and licensed 5G, he said. “You’ve got to use all the spectrum. When many high-quality privately-owned networks are available, carriers will need an efficient way to utilize ‘wholesale’ capacity to complement their proprietary RANs. That’s the problem we’re trying to solve with Orion Wifi.”

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