Ruckus Wireless has developed a gateway that offers a first step toward a time when smartphone users will automatically roam onto Wi-Fi networks to use data services.
Mobile operators can install the gateway, introduced on Monday at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, in their network operations center. Access points nearby will communicate with the new Wireless Services Gateway, which serves as a gateway between the cellular network and the Wi-Fi network.
The gateway handles functions like authentication, security and subscriber management. It also integrates with carrier billing systems so that data used on the Wi-Fi network can count against a user's subscription allotment. It supports data only, not voice over IP.
For now, the process won't be totally seamless: Users will still toggle Wi-Fi on and decide to use it instead of the 3G network. In the future, however, Ruckus imagines a time when operators will be able to set parameters that will automatically switch users onto the Wi-Fi network if it will deliver the fastest speed at the lowest cost to the operator.
Standards bodies are currently at work on defining a way to handle such automatic roaming between networks, said Steven Glapa, senior director of field marketing for Ruckus.
"In the meantime, we can make it as transparent as possible," he said. For instance, with the Ruckus WSG, end users won't have to enter their user name and password when moving from one Wi-Fi hotspot to the next, he said. The WSG caches that information so that when a user moves into range of a new access point, the gateway tells the new AP that the user is already authenticated.
The WSG supports a variety of authentication methods including 802.1x EAP-SIM/AKA, MAC address and WISPr-based captive portal.
The WSG offers a good first step, Ruckus said. "Once operators are able to unify the backend they will be able to assert control as to what kind of traffic will go on which network," Selina Lo, president and CEO of Ruckus said. "Today it's all or nothing. If [a user] chooses to use Wi-Fi, it all goes on Wi-Fi. If 3G, all the traffic goes there. The operator has no control whatsoever."
The executives encouraged operators to get started deploying Wi-Fi access points now, even if the technology for true seamless roaming isn't yet ready. "There's only so many places in public you can hang these small cells," Lo said. "So site acquisition is going to become a major amount of work as well as a competitive ground between carriers. There's only so much real estate on one lamp post," she said.
"It's a land grab," Glapa said.
If operators have to change the access points in the future, they will at least have the difficult work of establishing sites completed, she said.
Ruckus isn't the only one working on ways to unify Wi-Fi and 3G networks, although it says it works in tandem with some of the larger vendors. For instance, Nokia Siemens Networks last week announced equipment that will unify the two kinds of networks. According to Ruckus, Nokia Siemens is adding support for the Wireless LAN Access Gateway standard, so that its existing network equipment will be compatible with gateways from companies like Ruckus. "Our gateway sits on the edge of the Wi-Fi network and connects to the backend system, whether it's from Nokia Siemens or Alcatel or Ericsson," Lo said.
Operators are looking at ways to use Wi-Fi more effectively, Ruckus said. "Wi-Fi has really grown up from where it was in the minds of mobile operators from being a tool of convenience for hotspots that no one could figure out how to make money from to a radio access technology they need to consider using in parallel with what they're doing in licensed spectrum," Glapa said.