The Wi-Fi Alliance plans to make getting onto a public hotspot as easy as connecting to a cellular network, a change that mobile operators are likely to welcome as they look to shift more data traffic onto Wi-Fi.
The influential wireless LAN industry group will announce on Tuesday, during the CTIA Wireless trade show, that it is developing a certification program for software that would dramatically simplify logging on to hotspots. It plans to start testing in the third quarter of next year and hopes to see widespread deployment in 2013. The Alliance's ultimate goal is to allow mobile subscribers to join Wi-Fi networks around the world without, in most cases, doing anything themselves.
As the volume of mobile data rapidly grows, service providers are adding more Wi-Fi hotspots and covering larger public areas with wireless LANs. Wi-Fi can be deployed at relatively low cost compared with cellular networks, largely because it uses unlicensed frequencies. Spectrum is often the most expensive component of a mobile network, and it's not easy to get. Quick access to spectrum was one of the main reasons AT&T chose to launch a US$39 billion buyout of T-Mobile USA this week.
However, getting on to Wi-Fi hotspots is still a fractured process, sometimes requiring log-ins, credit-card numbers and other steps. In addition, it's rare for customers of one carrier to be able to roam automatically on another carrier's hotspots, as they can on cellular networks. The Wi-Fi Alliance wants to change that.
The group is defining a set of market requirements to build a testing program for network and device software. That software would help Wi-Fi devices to find the best nearby network on the basis of carrier policies, user preferences and other factors. Then, in many cases, the device could automatically log on through its SIM (subscriber identity module) card. Where it is necessary for the user to sign on, that process will be easier than it is now, the group says.
The Alliance also plans to include the WPA2 wireless LAN security mechanism in the software it will be certifying, so hotspots that comply with the specification will not be open and unsecured, as is often the case today. With WPA2, the data that subscribers send over the network will be encrypted.
Operators will be able to deploy the software on many existing networks in addition to new ones, said Alliance Marketing Director Kelly Davis-Felner. The only requirement for backward compatibility is WPA2, which has been available since 2006, she said. Hotspot operators who want to continue offering connectivity to devices older than that may run two separate networks, she said.
It will be up to carriers and other hotspot operators to form roaming agreements that include Wi-Fi hotspots, but the Alliance believes they will be motivated to do so in order to take subscribers off their cellular networks as much as possible.
Getting on to Wi-Fi hotspots isn't necessarily hard to do, but travelers who need Wi-Fi often may need to have a large number of separate accounts for various services, said analyst Craig Mathias of Farpoint Group. A specification that helped hotspot operators establish roaming could help to solve that problem.
Though the Alliance's goal of having carriers all over the world sign on to this service is ambitious, Mathias believes many carriers will join in. It's worth their effort to encourage Wi-Fi use, he said.
"Long term, the carriers have to be excited about Wi-Fi, because they don't have the spectrum they need to do everything they want to do," Mathias said.
The end result of carriers deploying more Wi-Fi and allowing easy sign-on and roaming will be better service for subscribers, Mathias said. Consumers are likely to see better performance even as the carriers save money by deploying wireless LANs instead of more base stations. However, roaming among carriers' Wi-Fi hotspots rather than their cellular data networks won't necessarily be less expensive for subscribers, Mathias said.
"You charge by value delivered to the consumer, not by cost," he said. The only factor that may drive down the price of connecting is competition, he said.