Wi-Fi Certified Passpoint zig-zags towards success

The Wi-Fi Alliance's Passpoint certification, release 1, has tipped the scales and will become required for all new phones. But Passpoint release 2 may never be adopted.

Wi-Fi-certified Passpoint zig-zags towards success
Credit: IDGNS

How far should a leader seek to change public opinion, to get out in front rather than follow? Lincoln famously said, “Public sentiment is everything,” but the quote concludes with, “He who moulds public sentiment… makes decisions possible.” It’s an enduring debate in the hinterland of academia where engineers seldom tread.

But standards can be like that. They often package basic, universal features with more decorative additions that offer transformational improvements but are of minority interest. There’s a risk that the burden of implementing these additional features will deter some vendors, and they may shun the standard altogether. If too many follow this course, the standard will fail in the market. 

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It’s a delicate balance: A simple standard that reflects what product managers want today may be widely adopted but not move the industry forward, while an over-ambitious standard will fail if vendors are not persuaded that the future benefits exceed the costs of implementation.

The Wi-Fi Alliance and the Passpoint certification

The Wi-Fi Alliance has been navigating this minefield with the Passpoint certification.  Passpoint is inspired by the cellular roaming system, where a phone that cannot find a signal from its home carrier automatically seeks out alternatives, prioritizes them and connects to the best choice of access point.

To do this in Wi-Fi, access points advertise which carriers they can connect to “pre-association,” so a device can quickly scan and see what choices are available. They then allow the device to authenticate to its home carrier and get an internet connection, with fully encrypted privacy and security.

The Wi-Fi Alliance took the IEEE 802.11u amendment in 2010, extracted some features and developed Passpoint (release 1), which launched in mid-2012.

Unfortunately, the phone vendors did not show up. One year after the certification launch, you could not buy a certified device anywhere.

Was the standard too complicated to implement? Was no one in the smartphone world was interested in Wi-Fi roaming? Had the Wi-Fi Alliance got the balance wrong?

Many of us were ready to give up on Passpoint, but then—progress. Apple added support to iOS 7 in late 2013. Overnight the population of Passpoint-capable devices went from zero to 50 percent. (“Enterprise” APs have been Passpoint-certified from the beginning, it is phone vendors that have lagged.) Then Samsung came out with an implementation on Android.

These breakthroughs got a number of commercial hotspot networks started with Passpoint. But still, it was questionable whether the standard had momentum. Then late in 2015, Google caught up and added support for Passpoint into the base Android load, as of Android M and N.

Today, all iPhones and many Android devices support Passpoint release 1. This isn’t quite the whole universe of eligible devices, but others are joining in—notably Microsoft with Windows 10. The outlook for Passpoint release 1, cloudy for the first three years, is now bright.

History is repeating with Passpoint release 2

But once again the standards and the market moved at different speeds. The original Passpoint standards work generated intense excitement among many service providers, and directly following release 1 the Wi-Fi Alliance started on a follow-on standard: Passpoint release 2. The new features enable online signup: a way to standardize and automate provisioning from that splash page you see on your phone when entering an airport, showing various subscription options.

The Passpoint release 2 certification launched in late-2014, two years after release 1.  And now we see history repeating. In mid-2016, two years following the Passpoint release 2 launch, no release 2-certified devices are available. Possibly it will pick up after a time lag, like release 1. But we must ask whether release 2 contained too many minority-interest features or went too far ahead of the market. It may never catch on.

And amid this uncertainty, the Wi-Fi Alliance made an ambitious move. In early 2016, it withdrew release 1 certification, forcing all new devices to comply with the full release 2 bundle.

The intention was to coerce manufacturers to implement the full set of release 2 features. The actual result—for now—has been that they refuse to certify. They say the costs of release 2 outweigh the benefits. While many phones include Passpoint release 1, none has been submitted with release 2 features since the change.

Where does this leave us? Passpoint—the release 1 features—has tipped the scales and will become a required feature for all new phones. This is good news for Wi-Fi service providers and consumers because they can move forward with secure, automatic, standard Wi-Fi roaming.

But Passpoint release 2 may never be adopted, as phone vendors design their own provisioning techniques that are likely to become entrenched.

And there is a risk that none of these devices will display the “Wi-Fi CERTIFIED Passpoint” stamp. Whether this should worry us is a question for another day.

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