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WiFi Roaming: The Technical Considerations

Steve Livingston

The vision for WiFi 2.0 or next-generation hotspots (NGH), as outlined by the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) and noted in previous blog entries, is for WiFi roaming to become truly interoperable, whereby end users can seamlessly roam between WiFi networks and providers. (See Commercial Opportunities in the 'Internet Anywhere' Space and WiFi 2.0: Roaming Holds the Key.)

For this to happen, "there needs to be standardisation across all elements involved -- from mobile device, to access point, to service provider," the WBA points out. "In order for Wi-Fi roaming to become a truly disruptive innovation, there needs to be very little fragmentation in deployments. Wi-Fi service providers, mobile service providers and hardware manufacturers must all work to the same guidelines and standards."

However, the reality is that ubiquity is still a long way off. There are multiple providers, multiple standards, and a mix of legacy and NGH infrastructure. Support for the 802.1x/EAP standard is growing, but it's still limited, given that infrastructure rip-and-replace projects are costly and happen slowly.

Market success for this vision requires a solution that will span multiple generations of WiFi networks and can leverage the world's current supply.

To facilitate global WiFi roaming today, legacy infrastructure needs to work like NGH infrastructure, and NGH needs to work like legacy. Both must be accessible in a common format. This means that interim solutions are now critical to bridge the gap and provide customers with a WiFi 2.0-like experience today and into the foreseeable future.

What kinds of things does a bridging solution need to consider? In order to roam between networks and providers (WiFi and cellular), operators need to achieve three crucial transactions seamlessly -- authentication, authorization, and accounting (AAA). It is crucial for operators to be able to manage subscribers effectively by seamlessly authenticating and authorizing them every time they log on to a network. However, mobile network operators (MNOs) traditionally have not been able to authenticate WiFi access at the device level. The majority of WiFi networks support only WISPr v1.0, and this requires authentication to be performed using remote authentication dial-in user service.

Device-based AAA (DBA) solutions (as used by iPass) provide an EAP-SIM experience over today's WISPr network by translating WiFi credentials from subscribed devices into a device identity within the network services fabric. By automating access and authentication and securely relating the data session to the mobile subscriber's cellular identity, a DBA solution frees MNOs from entering cumbersome usernames and passwords. These solutions are interoperable with GSM, CDMA, or LTE operational and business support systems. They emulate an international mobile subscriber identity for GMA networks and a mobile identification number for CDMA networks. This means that a mobile device identifier, not a person or user, is the common element to provisioning, authorizing, and charging for services across different networks.

This kind of bridging technology is a game changer bringing the legacy and NGH WiFi worlds together for users while we wait for WiFi 2.0. With this technology, subscribers can effectively experience the concept of 2.0 earlier than the infrastructure is forecast to allow. Operators should be keenly tuned into this opportunity to protect their subscriber base from seeking competitive offerings from players that can bundle all device types (including WiFi-only ones) on to a single roaming plan.

— Steve Livingston, Senior VP, Open Mobile Exchange, iPass

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User Rank: Light Beer
2/11/2014 | 7:42:36 AM
Why is it needed?
With LTE and other wireless networks, I am curious as to why Wi-Fi has to follow suit? I do not see the business plan for it. And perchance, is Wi-Max being conveniently forgotten by marketers. 
User Rank: Light Sabre
2/9/2014 | 10:41:52 AM
Not surprising
The handoff between Wi-Fi and network service (as in leaving a coffee shop with Wi-Fi) is shaky at best, too. So it's not surprising that interoperability between different Wi-Fi providers is several years off. This won't change until the providers see a common benefit in working together. That is certainly not likely to happen any time soon.
User Rank: Light Sabre
2/8/2014 | 7:58:32 PM
Re: 802.11 standards?
It should also be possible for carriers to share the infrastructure, only authenticate their subscribers, and have different "splash screens" for their customers.  Broadcast pay-per-view services in a venue/sports arena type scenario should be very profitable.  We will see how this takes off.
User Rank: Light Beer
2/8/2014 | 8:25:45 AM
Re: 802.11 standards?
802.11v and r address physical layer issues associated with wi-fi roaming by allowing the network to inform the device on preferences and options for a graceful physical layer roam - which includes shared credentials and state - but is limited to the existing AAA for that network.  Wi-Fi 2.0 - hotspot - addresses the actual AAA transaction and how it is authenticated - without the user being involved.  No username or password is entered - the network discovers you.  Moreover - the autentication can be shared globally with traditional 3g/4g subscriber data bases and support roaming between mutiple networks.   It is a unified AAA accorss technologies.
Steve Livingston iPass
Steve Livingston iPass,
User Rank: Blogger
2/7/2014 | 6:37:45 PM
Re: 802.11 standards?
Yes, you are correct. While support for 802.1x / EAP is growing, it is still limited to a small number of devices. Market success for Wi-Fi roaming requires a solution that will span multiple generations of Wi-Fi networks, leveraging the world's supply. The ultimate goal in launching an international Wi-Fi roaming service is to provide access to the most broad and meaningful Wi-Fi footprint possible in a simple and easy-to-use manner. There is a significant installed base of legacy Wi-Fi hotspots that the iPass device-based AAA solution can leverage to help bolster the market for device-based AAA Wi-Fi roaming services, helping to make Wi-Fi roaming widely available.

User Rank: Light Sabre
2/7/2014 | 1:35:50 PM
802.11 standards?
Isn't WiFi roaming the purpose of 802.11k and 802.11r? Some mobile devices already support these standards.
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