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802.11u and Hotspot 2.0 promise Wi-Fi users a cellular-like experience

By Steve Martin, VP of engineering, Ruckus Wireless, special to Network World
September 07, 2011 03:02 PM ET

Network World - Although vendor-written, this contributed piece does not advocate a position that is particular to the author's employer and has been edited and approved by Network World editors.

Why can't connecting to a Wi-Fi network be as easy as connecting to a cellular network?

It's not uncommon for people living in a major city to be able to "see" tens if not hundreds of Wi-Fi networks with their smartphone or laptop. But how does the device select the right network? And often the device doesn't recognize available Wi-Fi networks (SSIDs) or know if they have the proper security credential to even connect.

Also unknown is whether Internet access is provided through a given SSID or whether email or other services the user desires will function properly. For many, selecting a Wi-Fi network -- having to fiddle with the phone to enter credentials, encryption keys and everything else -- just isn't worth it. But soon it may be much easier if the IEEE Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA) and Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) have anything to say about it.

BACKGROUND: Wi-Fi group plans to simplify hotspot access

A little-known protocol extension from the IEEE, 802.11u, stands to have a huge impact on the user experience of emerging mobile Wi-Fi networks being built by operators. The key for widespread adoption of 802.11u ultimately rests in the hands of the WFA and its industry certification process as part of Hotspot 2.0, as well as the WBA and its Next Generation Hotspot interoperability program.

Who's doing what?

Driven largely by vendors and network operators, Hotspot 2.0 is an industry initiative that will use 802.11u to provide seamless automatic Wi-Fi authentication and handoff, allowing mobile users to roam between the networks without additional authentication.

While Hotspot 2.0 uses 802.11u as a fundamental building block, it extends beyond the 802.11u protocol to effectively automate the network discovery, registration, provisioning and access steps a Wi-Fi user must manually go through today when connecting to a given hotspot.

A companion initiative to Hotspot 2.0 is the Next Generation Hotspot program developed by the WBA. Unlike the WFA, which is primarily focused on vendor certification, the WBA is a collection of network operators interested primarily in interoperability. The WBA's Next Generation Hotspot program defines interoperability requirements for hotspot, cable and 3G/4G mobile operators. The program includes development of comprehensive operator guidelines and an ecosystem trial to facilitate migration to Next Generation Hotspots.

Given the explosion of data traffic on cellular networks and desire for operators to offload this traffic to Wi-Fi networks, Hotspot 2.0 and Next Generation Hotspot are widely viewed as critical components to accelerating the adoption of Wi-Fi as a complementary technology to high-mobility broadband wireless options.

And it couldn't come at a better time. The number of Wi-Fi hotspots are expected to triple by 2015 with some 1.2 million venues Wi-Fi ready, according to a recent report by In-Stat. It's anticipated that usage will follow suit, increasing from 4 billion connections in 2010 to 120 billion by 2015. It's these connections and streamlining the connection process where 802.11u comes in to save the day.

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