Wi-Fi roaming starts to take flight with Hotspot 2.0

Boingo launched automatic login capability at 21 U.S. airports on Monday

Smooth roaming from cell to Wi-Fi networks is finally seeing the light of day, with deployments at 21 U.S. airports and at two smaller sites in Europe debuting on Monday.

Wi-Fi networks at some of America's biggest airports, in a park in Warsaw and at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona are using Hotspot 2.0, a set of technologies that vendors and service providers around the world have pursued for more than two years. Up to now, it's only been available in a few instances. The specification lets users get onto Wi-Fi as easily as they roam onto cellular networks, eliminating the need to choose a network, log in or give a password.

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While making consumers' lives easier, Hotspot 2.0 could also help mobile operators offload more data demand from their expensive licensed frequencies. But to make it real, service providers have to both upgrade their network infrastructure and forge business deals with partners, both of which can be time-consuming, said analyst Peter Jarich of Current Analysis.

On Monday, Boingo Wireless announced that its subscribers with Apple iOS 7 devices will be able to join 21 airport Wi-Fi networks automatically and free of charge. The list of facilities is impressive, including Los Angeles International Airport, O'Hare International in Chicago, and the three major airports serving New York City: JFK, La Guardia and Newark.

To activate Hotspot 2.0 on their devices, Boingo customers just need to download a profile from Boingo for Passpoint, the client component of the technology. Using that profile, the airport networks can automatically authenticate users and log them in. Hotspot 2.0 can hand off the device's connection from any cellular network to Wi-Fi without any action by the user. The Wi-Fi networks are encrypted using standard WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access) technology.

Boingo operates Wi-Fi and small-cell networks around the world, selling mobile workers access to those networks and partnering with service providers for traffic offload. The company has roaming agreements with three of the four major U.S. mobile operators, as well as with five of the 10 biggest carriers in the world. For now, the Hotspot 2.0 service is available only to Boingo customers. But carriers could offer it to their own subscribers through a separate Passpoint Profile, the company said.

Boingo plans to expand the service to Android devices. In its largest venues, more than 50 percent of Boingo customers use iOS devices, compared with about 20 percent for Android, spokesman Christian Gunning said in an e-mail exchange. Supporting Android will take longer because of the diversity of OSes on those devices. Many commercially available smartphones from Samsung, LG, HTC and other manufacturers have hardware that can support Hotspot 2.0.

"There are a good number of Passpoint-certified devices, but I wouldnt say its common yet," Jarich of Current Analysis said.

With the service that launched on Monday, Boingo's networks will identify the user's profile as soon as they come into range and automatically shift them onto Wi-Fi. If mobile operator partners start offering access to the networks, they will be able to decide if and when to put their customers on Wi-Fi based on the app being used, the relative speed of Wi-Fi and cellular, and other factors, Gunning said.

The network at O'Hare in Chicago has been active since September, but only for testing by carriers and phone makers. The other networks are going live for the first time. Among the airports covered are Stewart International in the New York area, Baltimore-Washington International, Memphis International, Metropolitan Wayne County in Detroit, Eppley Airfield in Omaha, Nebraska, and Oakland International.

Boingo announced its new offering at the beginning of this year's Mobile World Congress, a trade show that's been an annual focal point for Hotspot 2.0 promotion. At the show on Monday, a consortium including Cisco Systems, AT&T, Accuris Networks and several of the world's largest mobile operators launched a Hotspot 2.0 network for show attendees. Cisco built the network, AT&T added Wi-Fi to its roaming agreements with the other carriers, and Accuris supplied the technology to manage handoff and billing through SIM cards, the companies said.

Another Hotspot 2.0 network also emerged on Monday. Ruckus Wireless said it was working with carrier Orange Poland on a Hotspot 2.0 network in Poland's largest park. The network, installed throughout the 760,000-square-meter Warsaw Royal Gardens, is offered to Orange subscribers but also available to customers of other carriers.

Orange users with iOS 7 iPhones or other Hotspot 2.0-capable handsets, such as Samsung Galaxy phones, will automatically roam onto the Wi-Fi network every time they visit the park after a one-time setup process. Consumers using other carriers can log on using their phone number and a one-time password sent to their phones via text message.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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