The Cloud, which runs Europe's largest network of Wi-Fi hotspots, will allow users to authenticate a Wi-Fi connection via a mobile phone Sim card in what analysts say is a significant step towards unifying Wi-Fi, 3G, GPRS and other data networks.
Transat Technologies' gear will let a hotspot authenticate someone with the same system as GSM, making it simple to offer integrated services and billing, The Cloud claimed.
The company does not sell Wi-Fi services directly, but to network operators including BT Openzone, Boingo Wireless, Orange and KPN. Users will see the hotspot as belonging to their particular service provider.
Sim authentication is considered by many to be the next step in presenting unified, seamless wireless data services. Previously, The Cloud allowed operators to combine Wi-Fi and mobile phone bills, but users needed to log on manually to each hotspot, and back-end billing systems required integration with The Cloud.
A laptop or PDA connects to the wireless network the same way a mobile phone connects to a GSM network, which means companies can add Wi-Fi to their service without the need for any new technology or expertise. The tie-in is likely to make such bundled offerings far more commonplace.
To operators, "the wireless Lan network appears just like another GSM network", said The Cloud chief technology officer Niall Murphy.
"It is just like a roaming deal. It removes a significant amount of special development work that mobile developers otherwise have to do to add Wlan to their product mix."
Enabling Transat's TransLok system across The Cloud's network involved installing a few back-end boxes, Murphy said. "We do that centrally, and Sim authentication is available anywhere on our network. It is scalable," he said. Because the system is based on mobile phone industry standards, The Cloud and its customers are not tied to any other Transat technology.
Sim authentication is more secure because it is based on a piece of hardware - the Sim card - rather than a password, which could be lost, copied or given to a friend, Murphy said. The system is enabled now, and is available to The Cloud customers such as Orange Israel and Orange Switzerland which have chosen to offer Sim authentication.
Previous systems for tying mobile phone and Wi-Fi accounts have involved relatively clunky techniques. The customer might use his mobile phone number as a username, and is then be sent a password via text message; this is then manually typed in. This type of authentication can be automated by attaching a Sim card directly to the computer via a PC card or dongle-based reader, but it still requires operators to set up a new system for Wi-Fi users.
The Cloud is by far the largest European Wi-Fi network with more than 3,500 UK hotspots in pubs, hotels, bus stations, train stations, cafes, boat marinas and the Bristol Airport.
A deal struck last autumn with New World Payphones will add Wi-Fi hotspots to 7,000 sites, largely indoor locations such as shopping centres.
Most service providers selling directly to the public do not own large numbers of Wi-Fi hotspots themselves, instead relying on roaming agreements with third-parties such as The Cloud. T-Mobile, for example, gives its users access to thousands of hotspots, but only operates a few hundred itself.
Matthew Broersma writes for Techworld.com