Hotspot 2.0 promises to redefine the Wi-Fi experience

If the Wi-Fi Alliance has its way, you'll be able to wander from hotspot to hotspot seamlessly

In an ideal world, mobile workers would be able to automatically log in to secure, ubiquitously available Wi-Fi hotspots for high-speed access to enterprise resources rather than have to search for a local hotspot and try to log in or rack up minutes on costly cell plans. What's more, those Wi-Fi connections would be able to hop seamlessly from spot to spot as users roamed. But reaching that nirvana state requires advances in security and what is nowadays elusive cooperation of hotspot operators.

The Wi-Fi Alliance is tackling this behemoth challenge with its Hotspot 2.0 spec, which enables mobile devices to automatically discover and connect to Wi-Fi networks. Moreover, Hotspot 2.0 describes an interoperable Wi-Fi authentication and handoff technology that would allow users to move among hotspots without needing to re-establish the connection, much like cell calls are passed from one tower to another today.

The Wi-Fi Alliance has already begun certifying products that are Hotspot 2.0-capable with its Passpoint program. Aruba, Cisco, Juniper, Qualcomm and Samsung are among the companies with Passpoint-certified products that, among other requirements, automatically configure industry-standard WPA2 security protections without user intervention.

The goal of the program is to create an environment where Wi-Fi is the primary mobility network. "Enterprises aren't keen on paying for cellular resources if they have a good Wi-Fi network available," says Kelly Davis-Felner, marketing and program management director for the Wi-Fi Alliance.

Brad Noblet, president of independent firm BN Consulting, agrees. So far, Wi-Fi has played best in the enterprise where internal IT groups manage largely homogenous environments and they have left carriers to handle the public side, he says. As data costs climb and usage rates spike (think video streaming), IT is looking for alternatives to the cellular component, and cost-effective Wi-Fi networks some day may fit the bill.

How will enterprises know that they can trust these networks? Enterprise Strategy Group Senior Analyst John Mazur says the creation of federations of secured wireless networks will be key. For instance, carriers or cable providers would develop global preferred networks of wireless hotspots and then allow users to access them. Instead of negotiating credentials and security levels for each hotspot, users would configure their security preferences upfront and then the device would automatically handle each hotspot's login requests.

Education institutions across the world have developed a similar federated structure, called eduroam, using RADIUS and 802.1X technologies. Researchers, teachers, students and staff who are eduroam-enabled by a member institution are able to securely access the Internet from their notebook or mobile device when visiting another member institution. The home network performs user authorization while the network the user is visiting deals only with access.

Eduroam consultant Philippe Hanset supports the overall concept of Hotspot 2.0, but foresees some critical issues, not the least of which is streamlining and prioritizing lists of preferred networks. "Will the cellular provider hand off the user to the first network on its list or will users be able to select an optimal network?" he asks. Also, will devices support the reality that many users weave between corporate and home use? A preferred network for professional use might not be the same for personal. Hanset wonders how providers will navigate these murky waters.

He worries about who will make these decisions -- will it be the user, the cellular provider or IT? The answer could make all the difference in the technology's security and viability.

Where do we stand with Hotspot 2.0? Noblet says initial certification is done and the major vendors have implemented some level of support. However, the broad adoption of Hotspot 2.0 will be dependent on the availability of support on client devices. That number is very limited today, but the general consensus is that greater availability will happen sometime this summer. [Also see: "Hotspot 2.0 guru talks Wi-Fi roaming"]

Wholesaling to carriers

There is another possible application for Hotspot 2.0: wholesaling enterprise Wi-Fi capacity to carriers.

David Callisch, vice president of marketing at Ruckus Wireless, writes: "People use Wi-Fi mostly indoors. And when they are indoors they are in some building, somewhere. And somebody else typically owns that building and most often the network infrastructure inside. That somebody else is usually an enterprise. In these locations service providers want to automatically connect subscribers to their own 'branded broadband' service using the venue's available high-speed Wi-Fi network, which they neither own nor operate. Hotspot 2.0 makes this possible by allowing user devices to automatically connect to any Wi-Fi network that has an interconnection with their 'home' service provider.

"This represents an unprecedented opportunity for any enterprise to wholesale their existing wireless LAN capacity to myriad operators by charging them recurring fees for Wi-Fi network access. Enterprises can effectively turn their WLANs, often burdened by large capital and operational expenses to begin with, into profit centers while underwriting the costs to build more industrial-strength wireless network that improves their own users' experience."

It is unclear, however, whether carriers who are building out 4G networks will feel the need to pursue that option once this more capable infrastructure is in place. Nor are enterprise shops pushing the issue. Tony Hernandez, principal in Grant Thornton's business consulting practice, says his enterprise clients rarely bring it up. 

Gittlen is a business and technology writer in the greater Boston area. Email her at sgittlen@verizon.net.

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