T-Mobile commits to Passpoint automatic Wi-Fi access; other U.S. carriers mum

AT&T's access to 30,000 Wi-Fi hotspots is proprietary

Of the nation's four biggest wireless carriers, only T-Mobile USA has revealed plans to deploy Passpoint, a technology that would allow wireless users to automatically access Wi-Fi hotspots from carriers' 3G and 4G cellular networks.

Certification of Passpoint on network gear and end-user devices, such as smartphones and tablets, begins in June, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance, which coordinated development of Passpoint, based on the Hotstop 2.0 specification, over the past two years.

When a carrier commits to Passpoint-certified devices and gear, its users will be able to seamlessly access Wi-Fi hotspots without a setup process or password, as long as the hotspots are also certified and permit access. Having Passpoint capability could drastically reduce the end-user cost of browsing and streaming video by using free or low-cost Wi-Fi instead of paying for data service plans over 3G or 4G cellular networks, analysts said.

Once multiple carriers use Passpoint globally, or even within the U.S., a smartphone or tablet user could easily roam on to more Wi-Fi hotspots than with a single cellular carrier. If T-Mobile adds the Passpoint capability in the U.S., it's possible that T-Mobile customers would gain access only to hotspots that T-Mobile controls or has set up for partnerships to use.

Mobile device users want streamlined access to hotspots like those that Passpoint would offer, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance. A poll of 1,001 U.S. tablet and smartphone users found that 70% would switch cellular providers if it meant they could access seamless Wi-Fi connections. The poll, sponsored by the alliance and released Tuesday, also found that 72% of those users would pay more for automatic Wi-Fi connections.

A T-Mobile spokesman said once the Passpoint certification process starts, "we expect that our Connection Manager on our devices will leverage Passpoint as an authentication mechanism." T-Mobile has been a member of the Wi-Fi Alliance board and has helped develop Passpoint since 2009, she said.

The other three major U.S. carriers, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless, didn't rule out adopting Passpoint eventually, but refused to elaborate on their plans when asked by Computerworld. All three already have capabilities in most, if not all, of the phones they sell to find nearby Wi-Fi hotspots, with the ability to automatically connect after the first time a password is used.

Even though equipment providers such as Ruckus Wireless are expected to show support for Passpoint technology at CTIA this week in New Orleans, analysts said there's not much incentive for a wide number of carriers to move ahead with the technology right away, nor are there many devices that support it.

Passpoint is "pretty much a future dream at this point," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J.Gold Associates. "It's unlikely there will be universal networks that you can roam against. There are probably no phones out there right now that do this ... I don't think it can happen quickly."

Gold noted it took years for roaming between carriers to occur over cellular networks.

AT&T operates nearly 30,000 Wi-Fi hotspots in the U.S., and its customers can use those hotspots at no added charge without having to enter a password. Regarding Passpoint, a spokesman said AT&T "can't speculate on the future."

A Verizon Wireless spokeswoman said, "We do not have Passpoint on our phones today, but are aware of the Wi-Fi Alliance and its ongoing work." Verizon customers can "easily find, connect and use a Wi-Fi network when desired," she said, and can set phones to make automatic connections to a Wi-Fi network (once a password, if needed, is provided) or can be notified each time to provide consent.

A Sprint spokesman said: "We are exploring all the options available to maintain our networks' performance at optimal levels, but have nothing to share at this time about specific services." Sprint's phones have similar Wi-Fi capabilities to those of the other carriers.

Passpoint poses a dilemma for Sprint and other carriers around the globe that have wireless spectrum capacity and want to attract more customers to their networks. These carriers would not see much value in having their customers roam to free Wi-Fi, analysts noted. Sprint is the only major U.S. carrier to offer unlimited data plans today.

But Sprint falls into a distinct minority, some experts said, since most carriers are interested in finding ways to relieve cellular network congestion, such as by offloading traffic to Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi Alliance CEO Edgar Figueroa said Passpoint is popular among the 30 carriers in the alliance, which includes AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon, but not Sprint.

"A number of carriers are tracking Passpoint and adopting trials, preparing to roll it out," Figueroa said, although he wouldn't name specific carriers. "Operators have every incentive to support Passpoint. They'd rather use Wi-Fi than wireless spectrum."

Figueroa said Passpoint's greatest potential is in providing users with smooth Wi-Fi handoff capability, regardless of the carrier, when roaming in another country or in the U.S.

"Passpoint would be a big benefit if moving about in your own city, or getting to the airport or a restaurant," he added. "Today, each area of a hotspot has a different logon and the experience is very different, but all that will go away with Passpoint, automatically."

Figueroa said the Passpoint certification process relies upon interoperability across carriers globally. He said he didn't know what AT&T might do with its own proprietary approach to hotspot offloading to free hotspots, or whether AT&T might cooperate with other carriers.

In a statement, the alliance said: "It would be possible for a proprietary solution to accomplish similar functionality to Passpoint, but only on an operator's own network with a specific set of equipment ...The long-term view of Passpoint's value is that as a standard solution available on multiple operator networks and a wide diversity of equipment, it is an essential element of realizing the 'cellular-like' experience while roaming, [including] access to the services of your home provider while connecting through a partner's hotspot. This would also give providers the ability to reach their subscribers [in] more places, including in their home, and more options about how to provide services short of building their own networks."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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This story, "T-Mobile commits to Passpoint automatic Wi-Fi access; other U.S. carriers mum" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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