The Beacon

Seamless Wi-Fi® access takes one giant step forward

September 17, 2013 by Christian Gunning, Boingo Wireless

Last week, Boingo launched a new Next Generation Hotspot network at Chicago O’Hare International Airport that is the latest step toward a future of public Wi-Fi as easy to use as your cellphone.

Over the last several years, the Wireless Broadband Alliance, Wi-Fi Alliance, and the GSM Association have worked together on a set of specifications and guidelines to enable seamless roaming over Wi-Fi in much the same way that cell phones today seamlessly roam from city to city and country to country. You turn on your phone, it finds the nearest tower, and they negotiate access without you having to do anything special.

Why is this important?

Six years ago (June 2007) Apple launched the iPhone, and the Internet – and how we use it – changed forever.  No longer the exclusive domain of business travelers lugging laptops from airport to hotel to cafe, public Wi-Fi started to become a more egalitarian resource. Anyone and everyone with a pocket-sized web device now whips out their phone to check their email, update their social network status, scan the latest scores, or prove the actual quote from that movie that everyone tries to quote but always gets wrong.

To date, this has sometimes been complicated, since there are hundreds of different Wi-Fi providers – some large like Boingo and AT&T, some smaller like the individual coffee shops themselves. The user experience as they move from hotspot to hotspot varies. Boingo’s Wi-Finder app eliminates a lot of this complication, but still involves some user interaction to make sure the device selects and logs into right network.

The new standards-based networks – using Passpoint-certified hardware (Wi-Fi Alliance certification based on Hotspot 2.0 specification) and Next Generation Hotspot network configurations (Wireless Broadband Alliance guidelines) – enable the phone to identify and negotiate with the network while it’s still in a user’s pocket. By the time they take the phone out to look at it, it has already connected and authenticated to the network, establishing a secure, WPA2-encrypted connection with the hotspot.

Right now, the Next Generation Hotspot network launched in Chicago is being made available to mobile carriers, hotspot operators and smartphone manufacturers who want to test this functionality as part of their product development process. While only a few phones today can take advantage of these specialty networks, more phones will be coming to market and with them the creation of a critical mass of users who can capitalize on the improved user experience of seamless Wi-Fi access.

In the long run, we believe Next Generation Hotspots will be most widely used by a wide range of service providers who have already added public Wi-Fi access to their existing Internet services or provided as a bonus by hardware manufacturers to entice you to buy their devices.

You see much of the same type of activity today, with companies like Time Warner Cable, Comcast, and Verizon providing public Wi-Fi access for their home broadband customers, and carriers like AT&T using their Wi-Fi hotspots to supplement subscribers’ monthly data usage in places like Starbucks and McDonald’s. Likewise, Samsung has included public Wi-Fi access with their latest lineup of tablets and has previously included public Wi-Fi access with network-enabled cameras, and Nintendo enables DS users to access public Wi-Fi in many popular locations.

With the Next Generation Hotspot networks, and their use of Passpoint-certified equipment, that type of network access can easily be extended more broadly to include roaming agreements with multiple providers through standards-based technologies that will be built into the phone, camera, or other Wi-Fi enabled device, especially devices that lack browser interfaces and are currently unable to access public Wi-Fi. By eliminating custom software solutions and turning to standards-based functionality built right into the Wi-Fi chipset, more users will have access to more networks with more of their devices.

And that seems like a win-win-win-win for network operators, service providers, device manufacturers, and users alike.

The statements and opinions by each Wi-Fi Alliance member and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions or views of Wi-Fi Alliance or any other member. Wi-Fi Alliance is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information provided by any member in posting to or commenting on this blog. Concerns should be directed to info@wi-fi.org.

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Christian Gunning

Boingo Wireless

Christian is the vice president of corporate communications for Boingo Wireless, the Wi-Fi industry's leading provider of software and services worldwide, and has been with the company since its inception in 2001. He was Boingo’s original director of product management, leading the development of the company’s award-winning software and helping shape the way customers connect to the global roaming network. As a lead contributor to the Wireless Broadband Alliance’s user experience recommendations for Wi-Fi roaming, Christian continues to champion a customer-centric view on simplifying access to public Wi-Fi. He has more than 20 years of experience in guiding programs for leading technology and non-technology companies alike, including various roles serving Microsoft, Compaq, Lucent, Emulex, Xircom, Denny's, Carl’s Jr., The Weather Channel, CAL FIRE, and the California Lottery. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California School of Journalism and has served as an adjunct professor in USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.