Someday we'll be able to stay connected, without interruption, from home to car to airport to office to hotel. We'll have flying cars, too, probably.
Cisco said it's bringing the first of those dreams closer to reality with its latest WiFi access points across its Catalyst and Meraki portfolios, as well as the Catalyst 9600, an updated switch series for enterprises and campuses. The new switches and access points deliver WiFi 6 (connectivity based on the IEEE 802.11ax standard).
Service providers do care about WiFi 6 as an immediate upgrade for managed WiFi services today. "I'd say [WiFi 6] would definitely improve the service that we're delivering today," Mark Ferreira, Technical Fellow, Bell Canada, told Light Reading last week. He noted that WiFi 6 will help with better connectivity, throughput and so on. "At the base of this, it's definitely going to help us deliver a superior mobile experience."
WiFi 6 allows connected devices to operate "up to 7x more efficiently, saving precious battery life on mobile phones, tablets and more," according to Arris, which announced WiFi 6 platforms in January.
But how do we stay connected?
In addition to new gear, Cisco is also adding new ecosystem partners -- including Apple, Samsung and Intel -- to its OpenRoaming consortium. The consortium is aiming to provide a more cellular-like roaming experience when users go between WiFi networks, perhaps even making it possible to roam between LTE networks and WiFi without interruption.
Cisco's OpenRoaming is an extension of the Passpoint technology that Boingo, Cisco and others demonstrated in a big way at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona a few months back.
In this video, Boingo's Derek Peterson explained that demo and how the Passpoint works:
But with OpenRoaming, Cisco is broadening the federation of identity providers and access networks that can all authenticate with one another. Those ID providers could be network operators, but they might also be device makers (Apple, Samsung), chipmakers (Intel), and retail brands.
"Passpoint today works very well for the operators who have the backend systems for it … but say you're a Target or a Walmart, it's not as easy for you to play," explains Matt MacPherson, Cisco's Wireless CTO. "What we're really doing with this federation is opening up the possibilities to the entities that you roam with."
MacPherson said a retail outlet, as an example, could join OpenRoaming and choose to accept a broad range of operator credentials to allow easy connectivity with no sign-on required by shoppers. "My interest is to get as many people online [at] my store as I can, because if I could get them online, I can give them a better experience while they're in the store," MacPherson said.
Why this matters
Cisco's hardware upgrades are incremental but important. The ability to roam, quickly connect and have predictable results between networks is critical for network operators. Those service providers are competing like mad to offer basic mobile connectivity to consumers and they're aiming to improve their margins by providing managed services enterprises.
Where OpenRoaming and WiFi 6 work together, mobile users could actually stay connected while changing networks. Cisco's MacPherson noted that network operators could then provide a "predictable level of service for WiFi access" that mirrors the carrier-class experience that one of their customers is used to, even when that customer roams into a building where the carrier doesn't own the WiFi infrastructure.
Network operators are keeping an eye on this. WiFi 6 does more than add bandwidth and stability to WiFi connections, it allows them to manage more devices per access point, opening up the ability to provide IoT-related services, richer video experiences and other new managed services.
"I'd say the longer-term plan and strategy is that, you know, with WiFi 6, we'll blur the lines between, not just wireline, but also 5G in the future," said Ferreira of Bell Canada. Ferreira said Bell Canada's aim would be to deliver 5G, which would cover the "out-of-store" experience. "But then, how do we also mimic that in-store, or in-building? That would be WiFi 6," Ferreira said. "So there's definitely new use cases and new services that we see ourselves, you know, enabling and delivering to our customers beyond the better connectivity experience."
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