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MWC: Carrier Wi-Fi playing more prominent role

As LTE expands, so does interest in Wi-Fi connectivity

By , Network World
February 26, 2013 08:44 AM ET

Network World - Underneath the mobile technology buzz at Mobile World Congress 2013 about expanding LTE deployments, and phasing in even faster LTE-Advanced networks later this year, is the strengthening market in operator-based Wi-Fi services.

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3G and LTE subscribers are responsible for huge increases in data traffic. But both end users and cellular operators are increasingly relying on Wi-Fi for data, video calls and even voice communications. The mobile industry is embracing products and standards that eventually will shuffle users automatically between cellular and Wi-Fi connections, and make Wi-Fi a more "cellular-like" option.

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In Barcelona this week, members of the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) are showcasing a cluster of demonstrations: small cellular base stations that also have integrated Wi-Fi radios, automatic offloading of cellular data calls to available Wi-Fi networks, and the "Next Generation Hotspot" features. 

NGH is based on the Hotspot 2.0 specification of the Wi-Fi Alliance. The basic idea is creating a set of standards, interfaces, and specifications for hotspots that let devices find and connect automatically without having to enter user names and passwords, that are highly secure via SIM authentication and end-to-end encryption, and that are much more reliable.

NGH adoption will also support Wi-Fi roaming, analogous to cellular roaming.

So far, a dozen WBA members have completed a pilot "network assessment" phase that creates a common terminology and common metrics for members to describe and characterize their Wi-Fi networks to each other. The assessment clarifies a host of technical issues that have to be addressed to set up roaming agreements between different operators: what types of security the network handles, what customer care functions it offers, billing and invoicing procedures, and the like. That data provides a foundation for adding or changing network characteristics so that roaming agreements can actually be implemented by the operators, says Tiago Rodrigues, program director at the WBA.

"Operators can see what stage they're at," he says. "And by looking at the different compliance levels, see which operators are using the same charging model, for example."

The next step is to formally launch the WBA's Interoperability Compliance Program and open it to all members. The members range from huge carriers and service providers to much smaller regional players and Wi-Fi vendors focused on vertical markets, such as serving five-star hotels. The compliance program will level the playing field for all Wi-Fi providers regardless of size, which will have the benefit of making "cellular-like" Wi-Fi more widely available in many more venues.

The WBA is working in tandem with the operator industry group GSMA to align the next generation hotspot framework "so we don't create two entirely different processes," Rodrigues says.

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