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Network operators get serious about Wi-Fi

New technologies, standards tame 802.11 links

By , Network World
February 24, 2012 10:28 AM ET
Mobile World Congress

Network World - The world's cellular industry is coming to Barcelona Spain next week for Mobile World Congress. But one of the key topics will be an entirely different radio technology: Wi-Fi.

At MWC, you'll be see a massive change in the industry's thinking about this unlicensed radio standard, now a standard part of smartphones, tablets, gaming devices, and even cameras. Faced with soaring mobile data demand, a range of network and service providers want to "tame" Wi-Fi, making it behave as conveniently, predictably, and reliably as cellular phone calls. Among other things, that change could spell the end of "free Wi-Fi."

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"There's a re-emergence of the relevance of Wi-Fi," says Andrew Borg, research director enterprise communications at consultancy Aberdeen Group.

Borg says carriers are turning to Wi-Fi in part to make use of unlicensed spectrum to offload data traffic from stressed 3G and even 4G networks, in areas dense with users and devices. But perhaps more important, the carrier embrace of Wi-Fi is an attempt to re-establish themselves as more than just a data connection. "Look at all the services and content being delivered on the mobile Web, by 'over the top' vendors like Google and Facebook," Borg says. "Carriers have become a dumb pipe and don't share in the revenue being generated by that content."

New gateway technologies and industry specifications now make it possible to truly integrate Wi-Fi with the carrier's core services, and to add intelligence that makes 3G offload and an array of other value-added services really viable, Borg says. Carriers can authenticate a user via a Wi-Fi connection, secure the link, share information with roaming partners for seamless hand-offs between access points, and, potentially, bill for some of all of this added value.

Will this mean the end of free Wi-Fi? "Let's put it this way: free Wi-Fi ended a while ago," he laughs. "Mostly [free Wi-Fi today means] you get islands of connectivity in some retail locations." The real value, he argues, is being able to aggregate thousands of hotspots, and provide cellphone-like ease of use, security, and services.

Consider these announcements in the run-up to MWC, which starts Monday:

+ A Wi-Fi Alliance whitepaper this week outlined the "Wi-Fi Certified Passpoint" project, which creates a set of specifications to create an "interoperable platform to streamline Wi-Fi access in public hotspots." First Passpoint features are due in mid-2012: devices automatically identify and connect to Passpoint networks with no user intervention, automatic network authentication, and WPA2-Enterprise to secure the link.

+ The Wireless Broadband Alliance, a collection of network operators, announced successful tests of what WBA calls the "Next Generation Hotspot," based in part on Passpoint and other WFA specs. The specs and guidelines handle automatic authentication techniques, hand-offs, and identity management. The goal, says WBA Chairman Chris Bruce is "to make it as easy and seamless to connect to Wi-Fi hotspots as it is to make a cellular phone call." Production deployments are likely to start in early 2013.

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