SAN FRANCISCO -- The Wi-Fi Alliance hopes to simplify the use of Wi-Fi hotspots, making it easier for both users and mobile operators to get off strained cellular networks.
Users of smart phones, tablets, cameras and other Wi-Fi-equipped devices will be able to get onto hotspots without entering usernames or passwords, the industry group said in a white paper released this week. The paper outlined the program, called Wi-Fi Certified Passpoint, and said the first phase of certification tests will begin in July. A second phase beginning next year will add more features.
As mobile data use dramatically grows, carriers want to move their subscribers to Wi-Fi hotspots to ease the burden on their cellular networks. Wi-Fi can also improve data capacity in indoor spaces where traditional "macro" cell networks don't reach. But subscribers typically can't move on and off those networks as easily as they roam from one cell tower to another. Infrastructure vendors and other mobile players are trying to make Wi-Fi an integral part of carrier networks, and next week's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona will showcase many new products in this area.
"It's going to be there for the long term," said analyst Peter Jarich of Current Analysis. "It's going to be a part of the way operators look at their networks, looking forward." As evidence of that trend, cellular network giant LM Ericsson announced Tuesday it would acquire BelAir Networks, a privately-held Ottawa maker of carrier Wi-Fi gear.
Wi-Fi Certified Passpoint is an attempt at a standard set of tools for interoperability among access points and client devices from different vendors. On the strength of the Alliance's widely recognized logo programs for basic Wi-Fi, security, multimedia and other functions, it could transform the way consumers see -- or don't see -- Wi-Fi hotspots.
"As an industry-wide solution, Passpoint will work in any network and overcome the limitations of proprietary, non-interoperable solutions offered by some providers today," the Alliance said in its white paper. The Wi-Fi Alliance has worked with the Wireless Broadband Alliance, a group of carriers organized for hotspot standards, to harmonize the two standards, according to the white paper.
The most obvious advantage of the Passpoint standard may be doing away with the browser "splash screens" that greet visitors to most public hotspots. Instead, admission to the network will happen in the background, through a variety of mechanisms that can include an SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card and certificate-based methods. This should make it possible for devices without browsers, such as cameras and lower-end cellphones, to join Wi-Fi networks where they are authorized, the Alliance said.
Because the SIM is the main method of authentication on most cellular networks, using it to get onto a Wi-Fi hotspot owned or authorized by a carrier could simplify the process for both subscriber and carrier.