Network Technologies WiFi

WiFi roaming gathers pace in US and beyond

WiFi roaming on a grand scale is the order of the day as a rising percentage of wireless data travels over the unlicensed-band technology, and as a wide range of service providers put WiFi at the heart of their networks.

Just weeks after the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) – the grandfather of WiFi roaming – announced agreements to allow movement between 23 operators of city networks, CableLabs, the cable industry R&D organization, pledged to launch a roaming hub for as many as nine US cable operators, by early 2017. That could further accelerate the creation of a nationwide network of cableco-deployed hotspots to supplement the CableWiFi Alliance’s huge roll-out.

A nationwide roaming agreement of that kind, which could provide seamless access to many hundreds of thousands of hotspots and homespots, would be a threatening thing for mobile operators, despite their potential use of the network for offload. But it would minimize the need for WiFi-first operators – expected to include the largest cableco, Comcast, soon – to rely on cellular MVNO partnerships. That, in turn, would tip the balance of power against the MNOs, in terms of the ability to keep mobile users on their networks to monetize them; and in discussions with cablecos about fees for WiFi offload versus MVNO access.

Mitch Ashley, president of CableLabs’ Kyrio for-profit subsidiary (formerly NetworkFX), said in an interview with FierceCable that his unit expects to launch WiFi roaming services for up to nine US cablecos in the next three quarters; and that it aimed to sign roaming deals between this collective of smaller operators, and the major players, most of which are also members of the CableWiFi Alliance. That Alliance was formed in 2012 by Comcast, Cablevision, Time Warner Cable, Bright House Networks and Cox Communications and now has about 500,000 locations. Non-member Charter recently acquired TWC and BrightHouse while Altice of France acquired Cablevision but, so far at least, the roaming arrangement remain the same.

Ashley said in the interview: “We will connect into members of the Cable WiFi Alliance. We are a complement to it. I don’t see us joining the Cable WiFi Alliance. But we will interconnect with their members.”

He added: “The WiFi roaming hub is a service that we put together targeted primarily at the mid-tier operators to provide them roaming capabilities across their footprint as well as to larger cable providers. It drastically increases the footprint of a mid-tier operator such as Midco.” Midco is upgrading its public WiFi network in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to support the hub. Kyrio recently completed technical and field trials of its hub with two other unnamed mid-tier cablecos.

The organization is also in talks with non-cable WiFi operators and Kyrio says it is open to aggregators like Boingo or telcos like AT&T, though it has not signed deals with these companies.

Kyrio will move from its current AAA authentication method to the WiFi Alliance’s Passpoint technology at some point in the future, adding seamless access for SIM-enabled devices and improved security.

Passpoint works in tandem with the WBA’s Next Generation Hotspot, and despite a slow start is beginning to be adopted at scale by companies like Boingo. The WBA is heavily focused on smart cities in its new work program, as the concept of city WiFi enjoys a major revival (and a far better business case than during its last heyday in the muni WiFi boom of a decade ago).

The WBA has launched its City WiFi Roaming project, part of its World WiFi Day initiative to accelerate affordable wireless connectivity around the world. The project has signed up 23 operators to support automatic and secure roaming for users on public WiFi networks, during August and September.

The initiative is designed to encourage cities, government bodies, fixed and mobile operators, vendors, web platforms and service providers, as well as retailers, to support a universal connectivity model.

The free seamless Wi-Fi Roaming service is based on NGH/Passpoint technology. It covers over 1,000 hotspots with 228 in downtown San Francisco; 500 across San Jose in Silicon Valley; 200 LinkNYC Kiosks in New York and 290 on selected metro stations; plus the Sentosa Island in Singapore.

The City WiFi Roaming Project has also launched roaming services in the cities of Barcelona, Dublin and Singapore, and is targeting others around the world.

Operators involved include AT&T, BT, China Mobile, Hong Kong Telecom, KT, NTT Docomo, Orange, SK Telecom, Sprint, Swisscom, Telecom NZ, Telstra, Telus and T-Mobile USA. Roaming hubs are provided by Accuris Networks, BSG Wireless and Syniverse while GlobalReach enables a captive portal and WiFi AAA / Hotspot 2.0 OSU platform.

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