Wi-Fi service provider iPass has launched an exchange to help mobile network operators offer Wi-Fi roaming as part of their service.
The high cost of 3G mobile data traffic while roaming is driving many travellers to turn off their smartphones' data functions while abroad. For example, Europeans travelling within the European Union may pay as much as €12 (US$17) per megabyte of data downloaded, according to the European Commission. The Commission's plan to cap data charges at €0.90 per megabyte from next July will help European subscribers, but won't benefit transatlantic roamers.
Owners of smartphones with both 3G and Wi-Fi capabilities have another option: surfing on Wi-Fi hotspots. Despite the lucrative nature of roaming traffic, this may also be a desirable option for operators, keen to shift data traffic from their overloaded 3G networks to Wi-Fi services wherever possible, as this can reduce their need for expensive network infrastructure.
Mobile operators able to offer their customers an affordable Wi-Fi roaming service can capture the money spent on Wi-Fi services, while customers benefit from simpler billing and a clearer idea of costs.
That's the market iPass is targeting with OMX, through which it aims to make it easier for participating Wi-Fi hotspot providers to authenticate and bill customers roaming from mobile networks. Through its partners, iPass offers access to 500,000 Wi-Fi hotspots worldwide, said iPass CEO Evan Kaplan.
OMX relies on a small client app running on a smartphone or PC to point users towards partner hotspots and authenticate their identity. The app is available for phones and tablets running Android or Apple's iOS, and for Macintoshes and PCs running Windows, with a version for BlackBerry also planned.
Network operators can put their own branding on the OMX client -- and iPass also provides the information for them to develop their own app, said Kaplan.
Deutsche Telekom, the parent company of T-Mobile, is one of the first users of OMX: it used it to build a roaming wholesale service for other carriers, Wi-Fi Mobilize, launched in May.
Two things have increased demand for mobile data services, said Glyn Baker, vice president for international partnerships at Deutsche Telekom. The first was Apple's iPhone -- and the second was its iPad: customers with tablets are typically downloading more data than those with smartphones, because the bigger screen makes it easier, he said. But those same users are wary of the cost of downloads, and will break their connection with the cellular network in order to stream movies or download large files via Wi-Fi hotspots.
"That's not something you can do with a 2GB mobile broadband allowance, so we're seeing a lot of 'breakage'," he said.
Making it easier for customers to use Wi-Fi -- while retaining the ability to bill for it -- is key, he said.
"They're doing that anyway -- they're just not doing it with us. They're buying a pass or using a free hotspot," he said.
Even with OMX, switching to a Wi-Fi hotspot will remain a manual operation for now, but both Kaplan and Baker can see a time when it could be more automated.
Much will depend on the programming hooks offered by smartphone OSes to automate handover, and on carriers' ability to connect those with the OMX client in the phones they distribute.
"It's going to be a carrier decision how seamless handoff is going to be," said Kaplan.
For now, said Baker, "The smart interface is the user."
Peter Sayer covers open source software, European intellectual property legislation and general technology breaking news for IDG News Service. Send comments and news tips to Peter at email@example.com.