Standard could end hotspot sign-on hassles

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.

In the first phase of the program, in addition to authentication methods, the Alliance will certify products for network discovery and selection based on user preferences, what networks are available and other factors, using the IEEE 802.11u standard. The first phase will also establish security during the use of hotspots, mandating the Alliance’s own WPA-2 Enterprise (Wi-Fi Protected Access) technology for every connection made through Passpoint.

In the second phase, the Alliance will expand Passpoint to include a streamlined process for setting up a new user account at the point of access. It will add in operator-specific subscriber policies, including for network selection.
Passpoint is also designed to help service providers set up roaming between their networks of hotspots. And with an increased ability to detect subscribers and their access privileges, carriers will be better able to distribute their own paid and protected content with DRM (digital rights management), according to the Alliance.
Vendors will have to have all the components of the specification to win certification, but Passpoint hotspots can be made compatible with older access points and devices. However, the benefits of Passpoint won’t be available in those cases.

Having more information about and control over subscribers’ use of hotspots could help to change the way carriers use Wi-Fi, Jarich of Current Analysis said. That technology might even start to displace cellular base stations where it makes more sense to use the other network, he said. Depending on how much value subscribers get from using Wi-Fi networks or how much of a carrier’s data traffic ends up flowing over wireless LANs, a carrier might even start to charge for hotspot use, which today is typically thrown in for free because it offloads data from the licensed network, he said.

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