Smaller wireless carriers extend networks via Boingo Wi-Fi

Non-Verizon, non-AT&T wireless carriers are turning to Wi-Fi network provider Boingo to help offload data traffic and to extend their wireless networks.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read

LAS VEGAS -- Wi-Fi network provider Boingo Wireless has struck a deal with the Competitive Carrier Association to help smaller wireless providers leverage Wi-Fi to offload traffic and extend the reach of their networks.

On Tuesday at the CCA's annual conference, Boingo CEO Dave Hagan announced the new partnership and explained the opportunity that Wi-Fi offers all carriers, both large and small. With mobile data usage growing at an exponential rate, carriers are feeling capacity constraints on their networks. And Hagan said that carriers can use Wi-Fi to help alleviate these strains on their networks.

"Large carriers like AT&T are already using Wi-Fi to offload traffic," he said in an interview.

Indeed, AT&T has built public Wi-Fi hotzones in cities like New York City and Chicago, where its smartphone customers can automatically connect to the a Wi-Fi and use that network instead of its overcrowded 3G network.

Boingo, which provides access to over 500,000 Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the world, works with other larger carriers to provide a "white label" service for Wi-Fi. And Boingo plans to strike similar deals with smaller carriers in the CCA. Hagan said the way the service will work is up to the carrier, but the company is able to provide seamless Wi-Fi roaming. This means that consumers won't even know when they're roaming onto a Wi-Fi hotspot. The company can also offer a service in which customers must manually authenticate the first time they enter a Wi-Fi hotspot and will be automatically signed in when they re-enter that hotspot.

While there are clear benefits for all carriers to offload traffic using Wi-Fi, Hagan also pointed out that smaller regional carriers may also find that Boingo's Wi-Fi network will also allow these carriers to extend their networks and potentially lower the cost of roaming onto other cell phone providers' networks.

"Larger carriers will likely have congestion issues and they'll use Wi-Fi to help with that," Hagan said. "But many of the smaller players will likely be looking for a way to extend roaming."

Data roaming is a big deal for smaller carriers. These operators often only operate in limited regions and when their customers travel to other areas, their devices only work if their carrier has a roaming arrangement with another carrier. For years the wireless industry has operated this way. But as carriers roll out the next generation of network technology, 4G LTE, smaller carriers accuse the two largest operators, AT&T and Verizon Wireless, of resisting new roaming agreements. This means that customers don't get access to these networks when they are out of network.

And even when they are able to strike roaming deals with larger carriers, smaller operators acknowledge that roaming can be expensive.

The FCC has passed a rule in which it requires all wireless operators to offer data roaming at reasonable rates. But Verizon Wireless is suing the FCC in federal court saying that the FCC doesn't have the authority to regulate data services.

Wi-Fi could allow these smaller carriers to provide network access in places where Boingo offers its Wi-Fi service. It will by no means offer ubiquitous outdoor coverage, but it could be helpful in certain high traffic areas, such as airports.

"A lot of individuals and carriers use Boingo Wi-Fi overseas to avoid expensive roaming fees," Hagan said. "And the same thing could be done for customers of smaller wireless providers in the U.S."

Hagan acknowledged that the relationship with the CCA members is in its early days. And the real needs of these carriers will be revealed as the companies discuss opportunities.