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Carrier WiFi: The Handoff Tradeoff

Sarah Thomas

Even as the number of WiFi hotspots across the globe continues to multiply, getting on those hotspots from cellular remains the tricky part.

Handoff and authentication have made the experience less than graceful for mobile users, although that's starting to change as new technologies emerge to make it a seamless process. The only problem is, it appears several new technologies are gaining traction, which could fragment the market for service providers.

Hotspot 2.0 is perhaps the standard about which there's been the most noise, but while it's racking up support in devices, carriers have been less enthusiastic. Dr. Derek Peterson, SVP of engineering for Boingo Wireless Inc. , an early proponent of the standard, says the service provider is in phase three of its Hotspot 2.0 trials with the Wireless Broadband Alliance , now working on policy configuration, so it can set rules on speeds offered, access points included, time of day, etc. Peterson says there is operator interest; it's just a matter of figuring out monetization models and signing contracts. (See iOS 7: The Next-Gen Hotspot Game Changer .)

"The table is there. The operators have even paid for some of the food, but haven’t started eating yet," he analogizes. "Some are trying to push it in their own networks, like KT Corp. and some cable companies. I wouldn't be surprised if we see something with them soon just because they are moving faster than the ones trying to protect their assets."

At the same time, vendors like Aptilo Networks AB aren't waiting for more operators to commit to Hotspot 2.0. Aptilo is working with operators on handoff via the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standard ANDSF (Access Network Discovery and Selection Function). Aptilo CEO Torbjorn Ward says the company has been doing SIM authentication with operators like Swisscom Mobile AG for six years now. While Aptilo will support next-generation hotspots, Ward doesn't share the enthusiasm.

"The politically correct answer is, 'We think it's very important, and it's an industry way to make it work, and yada yada,' " Ward told Light Reading of Hotspot 2.0 recently. "In reality… if you can already do a lot of these things, how important is that?"

Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) is also reportedly throwing another option into the ring. Engadget reports that it is working on a new iOS and Android app that will automatically authenticate and connect users to free hotspots, a good complement to its new relationship with Starbucks. (See Google, Starbucks Start AT&T Router Swap and Is Google the New WiFi of Coffee Snobs?)

And finally, an entirely new handoff alternative is emerging in multipath TCP or carrier bonding. The 3GPP tech, championed by Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) and other big vendors, bonds together licensed and unlicensed spectrum, allowing for faster, more efficient data transfers by combining all the best networks the handset can support. (See Not Your Grandma's Carrier WiFi.)

"In the near future, whatever the time scale will be, we anticipate wireless operators will have to leverage licensed and unlicensed spectrum together as part of their offering out to mobile users," Mike Schabel, general manager of Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU)'s small cell group tells us.

In that case, handoff is rendered unnecessary because two networks are being combined, a phenomenon that InterDigital Inc. (Nasdaq: IDCC) VP Narayan Menon warns could take some control out of the operators' hands if it's happening at the app level.

All of these topics, and more, will be up for discussion at Mobile World Congress next week, where I'll be to get the pulse on which handoff style is winning and what tradeoffs operators are willing to make when it comes to their networks.

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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User Rank: Light Sabre
2/22/2014 | 10:29:46 PM
Re: the WiFi divide
@kq4ym -- I think it will complicate and delay stanards.  Everyone wants to make the rules, regardless of motives.  I think we're going to see a lot of "unfriendly" competition.

Personally I'm not sure about Google.  They've got a history of not finishing what they've started and making some odd business decisions that sometimes pay off beautifully and other times turn into Wave.  (Although Google Hangouts is basically Wave 2.0)
User Rank: Light Beer
2/21/2014 | 9:57:15 PM
Re: the WiFi divide
They want to leave room for their partners & developers to do things. Build an ecosystem without trying too hard.
Sarah Thomas
Sarah Thomas,
User Rank: Blogger
2/21/2014 | 5:17:43 PM
Re: the WiFi divide
I think it's the huge footprint and automatic authentication process that makes it a bit more exciting than apps that locate hotspots for you.
Gabriel Brown
Gabriel Brown,
User Rank: Light Sabre
2/21/2014 | 10:23:59 AM
Re: the WiFi divide
Re: Google. Is there anything to say this is more than just a connectivity manager client -- of which there are literally hundreds available -- to be downloaded from the Android App store?

The OS level optimizations for WiFi connectivity in Android have so far been abysmal. Worse than useless. The shame is that Google could do great things in this area.
Gabriel Brown
Gabriel Brown,
User Rank: Light Sabre
2/21/2014 | 10:20:39 AM
Re: the WiFi divide
I agree with mendyk. Different motivations are driving different (proposed) solutions.
Sarah Thomas
Sarah Thomas,
User Rank: Blogger
2/21/2014 | 10:05:44 AM
Re: the WiFi divide
I think we saw the first inklings of that when Google announced it would replace AT&T at Starbucks. Its motivations are quite different -- ie. more ways to get customer data and serve up ads versus telcos who need WiFi to maintain the quality of their overloaded cellular networks -- but I'd hope they're mode of handoff would be compatible. 
User Rank: Light Sabre
2/21/2014 | 10:05:11 AM
Re: the WiFi divide
Motive is key to sorting out what's going on in WiFi and what's likely to happen in the inevitable "moving forward." And since motives vary, it's reasonable to guess that the cats will not be herded to a single standard.
User Rank: Light Sabre
2/21/2014 | 9:57:20 AM
Re: the WiFi divide
With Google entering the wifi field, I wonder if that will complicate and delay standards among interested groups. With the rush to gain footholds in the regulated and unregulated frequencies bands, there's bound to be some quite "unfriendly" competion out there.
Sarah Thomas
Sarah Thomas,
User Rank: Blogger
2/21/2014 | 9:44:52 AM
the WiFi divide
I think the hope is that all these carriers and vendors working on proprietary handoff solutions will also support Hotspot 2.0, which is the case in some instances, but not all. Ericsson is an example of another company working on proprietary handoff. Nice for its customers, but not helpful for moving the industry forward. 

There seems to be a divide already forming between the wireless operators and new groups like the WiFiForward initiative:http://www.lightreading.com/mobile/carrier-wifi/rival-msos-tech-rivals-unite-on-wifi/d/d-id/707737
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