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Ending the headaches of Wi-Fi

New standards will soon make getting from a carrier's 3G or 4G network onto a Wi-Fi network a seamless and easy process. But carriers large and small still have to get comfortable with that.

Soon wireless subscribers won't even have to think about signing on to a Wi-Fi hot spot. New standards that will be included in the latest generation of products will take the headache out of Wi-Fi.

Millions of wireless customers access public Wi-Fi hot spots every day. Some people get free access to Wi-Fi through their mobile operator and use the networks to avoid going over their data caps. Others subscribe to Wi-Fi services to get access to higher-speed data wherever it's available. Whether you use free Wi-Fi or you subscribe to a service, getting on to whatever Wi-Fi network you are using is not always a simple and easy process. Often you have to search for a hot spot. Then you have to sign in with a username and password. And if it's a paid hot spot, you have to enter payment credentials.

Now thanks to new technical and roaming standards that have been developed by the wireless industry, wireless users will soon be able to avoid these nuisances. From here on, accessing a Wi-Fi network will be an easy and seamless experience for consumers.

"Seamless connectivity to Wi-Fi is almost here," said Derek Peterson, senior vice president of engineering for Boingo Wireless, a company that provides a subscription-based service accessing Wi-Fi networks around the world. "What we have right now is not a good experience. And the new standards move us beyond that. And it makes for a great user experience."

The standards
Earlier this year, the Wi-Fi Alliance began certifying devices under its Passpoint initiative aka Hotspot 2.0. This is a standard that defines the protocols that devices and Wi-Fi access points use to communicate with each other to negotiate a connection. Up until the Passpoint standard was used, wireless subscribers typically had to seek out Wi-Fi networks, select a network and then provide username and password information to get connected to those networks. Usually this step was only necessary the first time a user signed onto a network, but it has still made using Wi-Fi a cumbersome process.

What's more, because manual authentication was often necessary there was no way to provide service continuity. In other words, you couldn't start a phone conversation on a 3G wireless network and continue the phone call on a third party's Wi-Fi network.

The Passpoint standard along with a standard developed by the Wireless Broadband Alliance, called Next Generation Hotspot, allows for a seamless handoff and provides a mechanism for establishing roaming agreements between cellular carriers and Wi-Fi hot spot operators.

The Wireless Broadband Alliance, which has established the standards for creating these roaming partnerships, recently concluded trials of its Next Generation Hotspot standard with some of the biggest wireless operators in the world, including AT&T, T-Mobile, China Mobile, BT, NTT DoCoMo and Orange.

Peterson said carriers will begin deploying the necessary equipment to make this integration starting by the end of this year. And some early adopters will start roaming and adding Wi-Fi integration into their networks next year. But most of the activity will likely happen in 2014, after big network operators such as AT&T get more comfortable with the idea of roaming onto other carriers' Wi-Fi networks.

What it means for your wireless service
These standards will allow a Wi-Fi hot spot enabled with these technologies to act as any other wireless access point in a carrier network. In other words, roaming from a carrier's 3G or 4G network onto a Wi-Fi network will happen automatically. So long as there is a roaming agreement in place, the customer will not have to discover or manually type in authentication credentials to gain access to a network. And the services being used by that subscriber will continue without interruption as he or she roams from one network to another.

In other words, the millions of public Wi-Fi networks around the world could potentially become part of a cellular operator's network. This should allow wireless operators to improve coverage of their networks in places where their 3G and 4G networks can't reach, such as inside buildings where cellular signals can't penetrate. It also will increase capacity in parts of their network where these operators have struggled to keep up with demand using their licensed spectrum. Places such as sports stadiums, concert arenas or other highly trafficked landmarks are already places where Wi-Fi is being used to offload traffic from a traditional 3G or 4G wireless network.

"The idea is that you as an end user have the same security and roaming capabilities that you'd have if your carrier was accessing another 3G or 4G wireless network from another carrier," Peterson said.

Meanwhile, a subscriber may never know that he or she is in a Wi-Fi hot spot. The hot spot simply becomes part of the carrier's network offering just as it would if it were using the network of another roaming partner. The benefits for consumers are obvious: they get easier access to Wi-Fi, which in turn provides better network coverage and faster speeds. But as wireless operators incorporate the new technology into their networks, business models will likely change.

"It's true that you may not know whether you're on a Wi-Fi network or a cellular network," Peterson added. "And a carrier might treat this as any other roaming relationship."

While it's unlikely a wireless carrier would charge extra for roaming onto a Wi-Fi network, it is very likely Wi-Fi usage, which has not been counted against a user's data cap, may now be included. And this could prove to be a downside for wireless users.

For example, AT&T, which offers unlimited free access to thousands of Wi-Fi hot spots in the U.S., has added Wi-Fi roaming to its international data plan at no additional charge for consumers signing on to that service. But instead of allowing unlimited data usage in these hot spots, as it does in the U.S., AT&T has set a limit of 1GB per month for Wi-Fi.

To be fair, AT&T International data plan subscribers are getting an additional 1GB of data usage for the same $60 price, where previously they got only 300MB of cellular data usage. But the fact that AT&T has put an actual limit of 1GB on the Wi-Fi suggests that AT&T views Wi-Fi usage as something that has value and not just merely as best-effort offload.

AT&T is using Boingo's Wi-Fi network overseas as part of its new International Wi-Fi roaming service. And Boingo now has access to AT&T's Wi-Fi hot spot network in the U.S. at no additional charge.

But the carrier seems to be taking things slowly when it comes to using other operators' Wi-Fi networks. It's well known that AT&T is a big user of Wi-Fi. The company has deployed tens of thousands of hot spots in the U.S. But it has only recently begun striking roaming arrangements with other Wi-Fi network operators. And for now it's limited that use to international hot spots.

For AT&T this strategy is to help reduce the cost of data roaming for itself and its customers on foreign carriers' 3G and 4G networks. And in the case of Boingo it is only using a portion of the Wi-Fi operators' foreign network.

"What AT&T is doing with Boingo right now is step one," said Doug Lodder, vice president of business development for Boingo. "It's taking traffic that is theirs and putting it on someone else's network. If the other providers' network sucks, AT&T gets the complaint. So it's baby steps right now to see whether providers like Boingo can handle their traffic."

Ad-supported Wi-Fi
But Boingo's executives also say there are other business models that may surface. Major providers such as AT&T or Wi-Fi-only operators like Boingo will likely be looking for more partners to add to their Wi-Fi networks. The new standards also make it easier to add these Wi-Fi providers to their networks. And new business models may evolve as venues that become part of these Wi-Fi networks demand other ways to make money.Some may want to gather analytics about subscriber usage patterns and sell that data to marketers. They may also want to offer targeted advertising.

For example, a large retailer, such as Best Buy, may want to push offers directly to consumers when those customers are in their store using the Wi-Fi network. A large stadium or concert hall that has built a Wi-Fi network may want to sell data about what people are doing on their phones to marketers.

"It's not always up to us or AT&T what happens within those Wi-Fi networks," Boingo's Peterson said. "Sometimes it's the venue's decision how that network gets monetized. Some may charge a partner like AT&T for access. Others may want subscribers to go to a landing page to see an advertisement or some may want to sell the aggregate data about what people are doing online to marketers."

Still, Peterson emphasized there isn't likely to be any single clear winner when it comes to the business model most used. But he said that the new standards will mean easier and better access to wireless broadband than is now available.

"I want to see world where everyone can get connected regardless of whether it's on Wi-Fi or a cellular network," he said. "It's sad we aren't there yet. Wi-Fi is great because it's not highly regulated and the spectrum is free, so anyone can be a provider. And now we are bringing down the barriers to really leverage the millions of deployments that already exist. I am excited thinking about the possibilities."