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Carrier WiFi

Hotspot 2.0 Makes Slow & Steady Progress

BARCELONA -- Mobile World Congress -- The hype around Hotspot 2.0 is giving way to slow and steady progress from the operators with a practical focus on policy.

That was the general perception of the two-year-old standard, which automatically connects mobile users to carrier WiFi networks, at this week's MWC in Barcelona. To work seamlessly, the standard requires support in the handset, at the access point, and from mobile operators. So far, the Wi-Fi Alliance has certified more than 75 devices that support the standard, but the operators are just now starting to come around. (See WiFi Passpoint: Ready for Prime Time and AT&T: Hotspot 2.0 Integral to Multimode Small Cells.)

"I would say that Hotspot 2.0 is making steady gains but not outrageous gains," Devicescape Software Inc. CEO Dave Fraser told Light Reading at the show. "It's almost been overhyped as the silver bullet for capacity and service issues, but Hotspot 2.0 or any carrier WiFi can be expensive and time consuming."

For consumers, Hotspot 2.0 is important because of the automatic authentication and the potential for lower bills, but its scope remains pretty limited. Fraser said it does nothing to improve the quality of your WiFi, and it won't seek out noncarrier networks unless they are roaming partners of the carrier. (See Carrier WiFi: The Handoff Tradeoff.)

"The whole quality of experience area is still ground for improvement," he said. "Hotspot 2.0 only goes 10% of the way there. It doesn't say you're too far from the network or what the servers are willing to do."

However, the operators are working on that, as well. For them, the appeal of Hotspot 2.0 is increased use of WiFi, alleviating network congestion, and the ability to choose when to hand off based on network conditions, speed, location, and billing preferences.

At least, that's the goal, and the industry is working now on the policy piece, according to Matthew MacPherson, director of technical marketing Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO). At this week's show, Cisco, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), and Accuris Networks plc trialed the technology, but using it required forgetting any other previously used WiFi network. It was far from automatic.

MacPherson said this won't be an issue when it's provisioned out the box, which will be the case going forward. Hotspot 2.0 can be pushed to new devices via a software update, as was the case with Apple's iOS 7 update, and it's being included in most future Android phones. (See iOS 7: The Next-Gen Hotspot Game Changer .)

Another thing helping to move the technology forward is the fact that Boingo Wireless Inc. has expanded its Hotspot 2.0 carrier and device maker trial, which started at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, to 21 airports across the country. Derek Peterson, Boingo's senior vice president of engineering, told us in a preshow interview that all the carriers are talking about enacting Hotspot 2.0 today, but roaming agreements are still necessary and still must be forged. Boingo, which acts as a hub for more than 140 operators' hotspots, has several such contracts in the works. (See Boingo Expands Hotspot 2.0 to 21 Airports, WiFi 2.0: Roaming Holds the Key, and WiFi Roaming: The Technical Considerations.)

"The technology might be new, the approach is new, but the business is the same," Peterson said.

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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Sarah Thomas 2/27/2014 | 4:12:58 PM
Re: Progress is good... A lot of people don't seek out WiFi everywhere they go, because it does take effort. Having it happen automatically and more frequently would help you avoid overages or even allow you to choose a lower-tier data plan because you aren't using cellular as much. Not sure if it'll save money for lots of subscribers, but it could mean they don't have to monitor their usage as closely.

Security is certainly a concern on WiFi, but this wouldn't connect you to public WiFi networks, just the operators' own APs. That's still a relatively small footprint, but it gets quite large through partnerships with Boingo, Devicescape, and other aggregators.
Sarah Thomas 2/27/2014 | 4:10:10 PM
Re: Progress is good... I think operators were too caught up in LTE in 2013 to think much about WiFi beyond offload. Now that their networks are much farther along, they are more freed up to think about the entire HetNet approach. But, yeah, it's definitely been slow moving.
Mitch Wagner 2/27/2014 | 3:01:51 PM
Re: Progress is good... How is there potential for lower bills? Would the new technology reduce the cost of a data plan by making it easier to connect to public WiFi?

Is security a concern here? Public WiFi seems inherently less secure than data plans; too many options for location-tracking and man-in-the-middle attacks.

Another problem we see with existing Wi-Fi: devices will often remain connected to weaker, more distant networks when there's a stronger signal nearby. Or at least that's been a problem with iPads. Is that something that Wi-Fi standards are addressing, or is it specific to the iPad?

DOShea 2/27/2014 | 1:46:58 PM
Progress is good... ...but given how much mobile usage of WiFi has exploded, it still seems like things should be moving faster. Wasn't 2013 supposed to be the big year for Hotspot 2.0 and other seamless authentication efforts?
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