Sprint makes Wi-Fi the 'fourth layer' of its network with new Boingo deal, small cell push and Wi-Fi router

Sprint (NYSE: S) struck a multi-year Wi-Fi offloading agreement with Boingo Wireless to seamlessly offload its customers' data traffic to Boingo's Wi-Fi networks at 35 major U.S. airports. The Boingo deal is one element of Sprint's evolving strategy to make Wi-Fi an integral part of its network as part of an effort to improve the performance of its network.

Under Sprint's agreement with Boingo, up to 40 million of the carrier's handsets will be able to auto-authenticate with Boingo Wi-Fi hotspot connections at no additional charge. Sprint has around 56 million total customers. Usage while connected to Wi-Fi does not count towards a customer's monthly service plan. The full list of participating airports is available here.

Sprint and Boingo conducted successful market trials that started more than a year ago with millions of Sprint handsets. Boingo announced an agreement in March with a Tier 1 U.S. carrier but at the time did not name Sprint.

As the service expands, Sprint travelers with Passpoint-enabled devices will be able leverage Boingo's "Passpoint Secure" Wi-Fi networks, Sprint said. Boingo's Passpoint networks include WPA2 enterprise-grade encryption technology. Boingo said that, on average, Boingo Passpoint users connect to Wi-Fi three times more often than average users and stay connected three times longer.

Over time, Sprint's agreement with Boingo might expand to other airports or venues. "We are always considering additional options and could certainly expand to other locations," Sprint spokeswoman Adrienne Norton told FierceWireless.

In a company blog post, Sprint CTO Stephen Bye wrote that the carrier views Wi-Fi as "a complementary fourth layer of our network (the first three layers being our 1.9 GHz, 2.5 GHz, and 800 MHz spectrum bands). By enabling customers to move more smoothly between trusted Wi-Fi and cellular, our customers will have a better mobile experience in more locations, all while lowering their cost of data usage."

Sprint offers Wi-Fi calling on the newest iPhones and most of its Android smartphones. Sprint now has more than 25 smartphone models and more than 15 million customers with the ability to use Wi-Fi calling. However, currently Sprint's Wi-Fi-to-cellular handoff is not smooth and if a customer initiates a call in a Wi-Fi coverage area and then leaves Wi-Fi coverage the call will likely drop.

Sprint also today launched Wi-Fi Connect, a consumer Wi-Fi router that prioritizes Sprint specific Wi-Fi Calling over all other Wi-Fi traffic and includes "smart connect" technology that dynamically manages 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz Wi-Fi bands for optimal Wi-Fi data performance. For customers who need additional in-home coverage, the device is free of charge if they have broadband Internet access and Sprint's Wi-Fi Calling capability on their phone. The device is not for sale though, Norton said.

Interestingly, Sprint is also launching outdoor small cells with Wi-Fi to enhance coverage and capacity. "The current product we are working with for outdoor street level coverage includes Wi-Fi and should be commercially deployed in the near future," Bye wrote. Norton declined to comment on which vendor Sprint is working with, or when and where Sprint will deploy outdoor small cells.

Sprint's Wi-Fi push comes as the carrier is reportedly planning to announce a new network upgrade effort. The carrier is widely expected to announce new network upgrade plans during its first quarter earnings call, scheduled for May 5.

Other carriers have been steadily building up their Wi-Fi capabilities. T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) disclosed in March it is seeing strong adoption of its Wi-Fi calling feature, and according to a T-Mobile executive the carrier now counts more than 7 million users of Wi-Fi calling. Last fall T-Mobile made a big push for Wi-Fi calling by letting customers upgrade to a new Wi-Fi capable smartphone if they didn't already have one. In addition, the carrier began offering Simple Choice postpaid customers a free proprietary "Cellspot" Wi-Fi router for their home to enhance their in-home coverage.

AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T) is a major Wi-Fi proponent itself and currently owns and operates around 34,000 Wi-Fi hotspots at restaurants, bookstores, hotels and other locations.

For more:
- see this release
- see this Sprint page
- see this Sprint blog post

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