Next generation hotspots: The future of Wi-Fi?

A new solution for connecting to wireless hotspots could change the user experience forever. But as Steve Evans points out, there will need to be more collaboration in the telecoms and networking industries before we start to reap the benefits.

Those of us who regularly work on the go will know the relief at finding somewhere offering public Wi-Fi. Yet, that relief is more often than not wiped out by an array of sign-on processes , ranging from clicking on an “accept terms and conditions” button to much more laborious systems where email addresses, postcodes, temporary usernames and passwords are required.

It is a process that can leave a user exasperated to the point of giving up.

But new technological developments should mean an end to those frustrations. Next-generation Wi-Fi hotspots (NGH) aim to bypass the signing-in process with all the hard work done behind the scenes.

If a user enters a Wi-Fi zone they are authorised to use, their device will automatically join the network, with no username or password required. NGHs should also enable users to switch between networks more easily, removing the need to sign on each time.

NGH was born out of a need for the industry to standardise Wi-Fi connectivity. Previously, companies such as Boingo Wireless would white-label their products to ISPs, which wanted to bundle Wi-Fi access with home broadband, as well as companies such as Verizon Business, who sell secure remote access platforms to their customers.

However, with most Wi-Fi providers using different technologies, it became a cumbersome process to get connected and stay online.

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Christian Gunning, vice-president of corporate communications at Boingo, said that created a demand for a standards-based platform. An industry group, made up of GSMA (representing the cellular side), the Wi-Fi Alliance (representing the hardware partners) and the WBA (representing the Wi-Fi network operators), joined forces to examine ways to make it easier to move people from cellular data to the Wi-Fi networks without having to jump through so many hoops.

The key to NGH is something called Passpoint. Passpoint is an industry certification that your device has 802.1x and 802.11u functionality. IEEE 802.1x is a way to securely authenticate to a network. It is used in many businesses as a way for workers to connect to corporate networks, making the network trust a certain device. 802.11u is what creates the seamless part of the network identification and authentication process.

“With 802.11u, a Passpoint-enabled smartphone and a Passpoint-enabled access point (AP) can have a very involved conversation, without the user connecting,” said Gunning. “The smartphone sends out packets to see what’s around, which is a process called beaconing.”

“Previously, the device would look for certain things – network name, hardware, other protocols and so on. With 802.11u there is a whole different list of data that is beaconing. Part of that is the accessibility of roaming [whether that access point is enabled for it] as well as a list of all the domains that are supported.”

If Wi-Fi roaming is bundled as part of a business package or even a home broadband package, the device will have a small config file on it that ties that device to the user’s account. Whenever that device enters the range of an NGH AP, the radio on the device will talk to the AP and, if it supports the domain, it will be allowed on to the authentication phase.

That involves the phone submitting its credentials and the roaming partner or service provider then proxying that on to the home domain for authentication. It is then assigned an IP address and a connection is created on WPA2 encryption. All of this happens without any input from the user.

With 802.11u, a Passpoint-enabled smartphone and a Passpoint-enabled access point can have a very involved conversation, without the user connecting

Christian Gunning, vice president of corporate communications at Boingo

That is why NGH is also considered a huge step up in security. WPA2 encryption is the type of security and connection you would get at the office on an enterprise calibre secure hotspot, well above the level of security on most public Wi-Fi hotspots.

There is another thing to note regarding the benefits of NGH – it doesn’t impact speeds. The technological progression is based much more on ease of access and security. Improving Wi-Fi speeds is still very much a network issue, although that will improve over time. But NGH is about seamless access and movement between Wi-Fi networks and improving security.

The initiative is being led by the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), an industry collective set up in 2003 to drive Wi-Fi innovation. Its members include some of the biggest networking companies, mobile operators and other technology companies in the world. Google, AT&T, Boingo Wireless, Orange, Cisco, Intel, BT, China Mobile and Korean telecoms giant KT are all members.

But NGH requires the cooperation of equipment makers, mobile operators and networking vendors to make it work. That’s why trials have been so important and have been taking place across the world.

The biggest one so far has been at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. It was chosen partly because of its centralised location, Gunning said, with travellers arriving from all over the US using lots of different providers, which would test the system. The trial also covered the entire airport rather than just a few gates or a single terminal. Gunning said this was to give the technology its toughest test.

The trial has so far consisted of getting carriers, service providers and device makers to test out the system, to see how easy it is to get connected and stay online as the user passes from one AP to the next. As the trial is still ongoing, Boingo and Chicago O’Hare are reluctant to talk about it, but what it has shown is there are still a few issues to be ironed out – particularly with the user experience – before the industry can begin to really roll out NGH on a mass scale.

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Another issue is compatible devices, or lack thereof. At the moment Apple supports it via iOS 7, so any device running that can use Passpoint, as can users with a Samsung Galaxy S4 and S3 (with a firmware update). Apple also introduced Passpoint support in OSX Mavericks. Beyond that pickings are slim.

It’s a tough Catch 22 situation. Device manufacturers are unlikely to build in Passpoint while there are so few carriers and equipment vendors supporting it. On the flip side greater support is unlikely to arrive while there are so few devices on the market that support Passpoint. That is why trials such as at Chicago O’Hare are so important in showing all interested parties how well the technology can work.

Despite this impasse, Boingo’s Gunning believes wider rollouts could begin during the second half of 2014, with installations of NGHs really taking off in 2015 as the technology, and in particular the user experience, improves. In fact, research carried out by the WBA found 78% of its members planning on deploying NGH will do so by the end of 2015. Separate research from the WBA revealed NGH will account for 9% of all global Wi-Fi traffic and generate $150 billion in operator revenue by 2018.

For most looking to utilise NGH, upgrading to it should not be too difficult. If existing access points are less than a year old then the technology is already available inside; it is just a case of a configuration update. Equipment that is around two to four years old should need just a firmware update to switch to NGH. Older equipment will need to be replaced, Gunning said.

While Asia, particularly Korea and China, and the USA are pushing ahead with NGH rollouts due to existing infrastructure, it is perhaps Europe where the need is felt most. Lots of different nations being squeezed into a small space, a huge number of different mobile carriers and the amount of travelling that goes on between countries means easy Wi-Fi access is a highly sort after feature.

But we will have to wait for team work. Only once the mobile operators, network providers and ISPs have come to an agreement and NGH starts taking off, then Europeans can expect to see the benefits.

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