WiFi networks aren't carrier-class, but they're getting closer. The Wi-Fi Alliance announced today that it has added several new features to the Passpoint standard, making it easier and more secure for consumers to connect to service provider WiFi networks.
The new components of the Wi-Fi Certified Passpoint program include online sign-up and immediate account provisioning, secure registration for ensuring that consumers are signed up with the right network, and the ability for service providers to assign subscriber policies -- such as rules for network prioritization -- that carry across multiple hotspot locations.
The Wi-Fi Alliance began certifying the first Passpoint products in 2012, not long before the first Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) trials kicked off. The goal of Passpoint, which is based on the Wi-Fi Alliance's Hotspot 2.0 specification, is to allow providers to establish more controls over wireless access and to make it simpler for consumers to connect to and even roam between designated WiFi networks. According to the Alliance, several major fixed and mobile operators have deployed Passpoint networks to date, including Boingo Wireless Inc. , Orange (NYSE: FTE), SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM), Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) and Telkom Indonesia. More than 20 other operators are in the process of conducting WiFi roaming trials with Passpoint.
The continued development of the Passpoint program comes as consumers increasingly rely on WiFi as an alternative to carrier-delivered mobile broadband. Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) projects that 61% of Internet traffic will be WiFi-generated by 2018, compared to only 15% of traffic attributable to cellular connections. CableLabs has also predicted that the number of WiFi hotspot deployments will increase from 5.2 million in 2012 to 10.5 million by 2018.
For cable operators, WiFi is an important tool for extending customer relationships outside the home. Tom Nagel, senior vice president of Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), has described WiFi as "our mobile network of choice," and enthusiasm among cable companies has so far been matched by aggressive WiFi rollouts. Comcast claims the largest WiFi footprint in the US with more than 4.5 million hotspots, while Time Warner Cable has the largest Passpoint-enabled network, thanks to a decision earlier in the year to bring Hotspot 2.0 technology to most of its 33,000 WiFi access points. (See Comcast, Liberty Global Ink Big WiFi Pact and TWC & Charter Embrace Next-Gen WiFi.)
On the consumer product side, an increasing number of mobile devices support Passpoint, including smartphones and tablets from High Tech Computer Corp. (HTC) (Taiwan: 2498), LG Electronics Inc. (London: LGLD; Korea: 6657.KS) , Samsung Corp. and Sony Corp. (NYSE: SNE).
Ken Rehbehn, principal analyst for the 451 Research Mobility Team, believes that Passpoint is critical for the development of WiFi going forward. "Passpoint delivers vital access and security technology for Wi-Fi providers of every type, while also easing the way for effective Wi-Fi roaming interconnect agreements," said Rehbehn in a statement. "The new features are important because they enable Passpoint's value proposition by making it simple to connect millions of Wi-Fi-only devices to secure, trusted Passpoint venues. Wi-Fi providers -- including fixed, mobile, retail and hospitality services -- should take note."
Many in the industry agree with Rehbehn's position, and several organizations are working to drive progress toward carrier-class WiFi even further. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) , Wi-Fi Alliance and Wireless Broadband Alliance are all collaborating on technical improvements that should lead to significantly more robust WiFi by 2015 or 2016. Areas of focus for the organizations include device management on WiFi networks, and traffic prioritization. (See Carrier-Grade WiFi Still 2 Years Away – CableLabs.)
Although true carrier-class WiFi is still some years out, there is reason to be optimistic that the result will be worth the wait. With the launch of the latest Passpoint updates, the Wi-Fi Alliance also commissioned research on consumer WiFi behavior in the US and UK. Among the findings, 70% of respondents said they would be less likely to leave a wireless or cable provider if that provider offered a Passpoint-enabled hotspot network, and 68% said they would switch mobile carriers for a Passpoint-enabled WiFi service.
— Mari Silbey, special to Light Reading