Cell-to-Wi-Fi roaming is on the way, but may come with a price

The GSMA and WBA expect to harmonize different approaches to automatic mobile handoffs in nine months

Getting your phone onto Wi-Fi networks may get a lot easier starting in about a year, but it won't necessarily get cheaper.

The main trade groups for mobile operators and Wi-Fi hotspot providers are working out the details of how to hand off devices automatically between the two types of networks. Within nine months, the GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) Association and the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) expect to have a framework for service providers to set up roaming systems similar to those already available in the cellular world.

Many mobile carriers already operate their own Wi-Fi networks, and some offer access to third-party hotspots. But getting onto a Wi-Fi network that's not run by your own carrier usually involves looking through a list of networks nearby and then typing in a username and password. Often, the user has to pay for access to one or a collection of hotspots, on top of paying for cellular data.

With easier roaming, Wi-Fi is expected to play a growing role in mobile networks alongside cellular, bringing in extra capacity and higher speed where needed.

The two industry groups envision smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices roaming smoothly onto Wi-Fi hotspots just as they do now from one cellular network to another. Their aim is to eliminate the manual steps a mobile subscriber has to go through to get on a Wi-Fi network. It would become like any other roaming process. This isn't a new aspiration in the mobile data world, but GSMA and WBA could make it happen. What they won't do is dictate what carriers charge for that roaming experience.

"Within WBA, we don't really like to speak about pricing and the deals that operators decide to do between themselves," said Tiago Rodrigues, program director at the WBA. Different service providers take different approaches, some offering Wi-Fi as a cheaper alternative to cellular data and others bundling it with other services, he said.

Despite Wi-Fi often being provided as a free amenity, it's not likely to turn the pricey world of international roaming on its head, according to some observers, including Ovum analyst Daryl Schoolar. He does not expect carriers to offer free international roaming through Wi-Fi partners any time soon. "There's a lot of money in that roaming stuff," Schoolar said in an interview last month.

The Wi-Fi and cellular worlds have different technologies for carrying out the tasks required for roaming between networks, such as network selection, user authentication and billing. The GSMA and WBA have identified the differences between those specifications and are starting to resolve them, representatives of both groups said on Monday. After they have filled in the technical gaps, they will develop frameworks for contracts that mobile operators and hotspot providers can use to form roaming agreements.

All that work should be finished within about nine months, said Dan Warren, senior director of technology at the GSMA. Once it's done, it may take service providers three to six months to implement the technology and the roaming agreements, he said. Even then, adoption is likely to be gradual. Warren expects most service providers to rally around Wi-Fi roaming at some point but wouldn't predict when.

Consumers should look forward to roaming agreements between large carriers and major operators of Wi-Fi hotspots, plus aggregators of hotspots operated by smaller businesses, Warren said. Individual hotspots, such as a free Wi-Fi network at an independent coffee shop, probably won't have an incentive to strike roaming agreements with big cellular carriers, nor vice versa, he said. However, they may sign on with an aggregator such as Boingo Wireless, he added.

Mobile operators and equipment providers have already begun to demonstrate interoperability between cellular and Wi-Fi networks based on Hotspot 2.0, a Wi-Fi Alliance specification that forms a technical foundation for the GSMA and WBA's work. In advance of last month's Mobile World Congress, the WBA announced trials of its Next-Generation Hotspot technology, which is based on Hotspot 2.0, that involved AT&T, BT, China Mobile and other mobile operators from around the world. At the conference, Cisco Systems announced a Next-Generation Hotspot architecture approved by the WBA.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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