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