A few finally find HotSpot 2.0 Wi-Fi connections

A few finally find HotSpot 2.0 Wi-Fi connections

There are currently several million smartphones certified to run on a "HotSpot 2.0" Wi-Fi network. In November, about 400 of them finally got a chance to do so -- in Beijing, China.

Attendees at a carrier Wi-Fi conference found that their smartphones, from different "home" carriers, automatically authenticated with and connected securely to a Cisco Wi-Fi network hosted by China Mobile.

The next big public demonstration of what's confusingly referred to as both Hotspot 2.0 and Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) will be in February 2014: an estimated 75,000 attendees at the next Mobile World Congress in Barcelona will be able to take part.

BACKGROUND:Hotspot 2.0 promises to redefine the Wi-Fi experience

But don't hold your breath waiting for a HotSpot 2.0 near you, unless you are visiting Boingo's network at O'Hare airport in Chicago or you are a Towerstream user in New York City, the only two, still limited deployments in the U.S. While the technical details have been sorted out, including a Wi-Fi Alliance equipment certification program, networking companies, carriers, and mobile operators are still haggling over Wi-Fi roaming agreements and puzzling over how, or whether, to make money from it.

So far, the 400-plus attendees in Beijing for November's Wi-Fi Global Congress, an industry event focused on carrier-based Wi-Fi services, is the biggest public group to test out the long-standing promises of HotSpot 2.0: automatic Wi-Fi authentication and connection, and seamless roaming between different Wi-Fi hotspot brands, and eventually between Wi-Fi and cellular connections.

For carriers, a reliable, secure, high-capacity Wi-Fi service that's as easy for subscribers to use as cellular means that subscribers can be shifted from overburdened cell networks to higher-capacity Wi-Fi networks.

That's what drew 14 carriers and operators to the Beijing project: when their subscribers walked into the venue with their phones, the phones and access points started an automatic conversation. By the time a user pulled his smartphone from a pocket, the device already had been authenticated to the Wi-Fi network, with full roaming rights, and securely connected. A Cisco diagram (shown above) outlines the network elements.

(Cisco's Lisa Garza, who handles service provider marketing for the company's Mobility Solutions unit, has a high-level overview of the Beijing demonstration.)

But not any Wi-Fi radio can use such services. First, client radios and access points have to implement the Wi-Fi Alliance's Hotspot 2.0 specification. The WFA has a testing process for the equipment, and if the radios pass, they are labeled as "Passpoint" certified.

Passpoint deals with network access. You turn on your device, credentials are provisioned, network and device identify each other, and automatically join. In practice, it will be similar to your cell phone finding its "home" cellular network service when you land at an airport, and automatically connecting, with the network "knowing" the device and the subscriber.

But that's only half of the "Next Generation Hotspot," which is the name of a set of complementary protocols developed by the Wireless Broadband Alliance, working closely with WFA. These protocols in effect carry the end user's Hotspot 2.0 identity, authentication and connection back into the mobile operator's network, to support "inter-operator Wi-Fi roaming," along with billing and other services. So if you're a subscriber with AT&T Wireless and you fly to Paris, your iPhone 5s can connect automatically and securely to a Hotspot 2.0/NGH Wi-Fi network provisioned by mobile operator Orange France. Again, it's the Wi-Fi equivalent of cellular roaming.

Hotspot 2.0 IN THE USA

If you missed Beijing and can't wait for Barcelona, you can find a Passpoint network by Boingo at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, which went live, very quietly, last summer. And Towerstream offers a HotSpot 2.0 capabilities to its retail customers via its Hetnets subsidiary, notably in New York City.

Among other things, Boingo offers Wi-Fi services around the globe, at airports and restaurants for example, under both its own name and as a white label provider of Wi-Fi services to other companies. Both Boingo and Towersteam have been actively working with the WFA and the WBA on their respective specs and protocols.

A planned upgrade to its O'Hare network coincided with completion of a round of WBA Next Generation Hotspot trials in late 2012. The company judged the time was ripe to put HotSpot 2.0/NGH to a public test, says Christian Gunning, Boingo's vice president of corporate communications. Boing offers two Wi-Fi networks at the airport. The standard "Boingo Hotspot" where you log in with your Boingo username and password. But users now also can see "Boingo Passpoint," a locked, secure Wi-Fi network.

"A lot of users clicked on that," Gunning says, a fact that suggests a keen awareness of, and pent-up demand for, secure Wi-Fi with seamless access.

Once a user selects the Passpoint network, a profile is provisioned and downloaded: connections are then automatic whenever you walk into O'Hare, because the Passpoint device and network "know" each other.

RELATED:Is that hotspot safe to use? Wi-Fi Alliance wants to help

The interaction between the two is mediated via IEEE 802.11u, which broadcasts what networks, partners, and services are available, according to Gunning. Apple's iOS 7 supports Passpoint, giving millions of at least its more recent iPhones the ability to search automatically for Passpoint networks and recognize them when they find them. Samsung's Galaxy S4 likewise has built-in Passpoint support and there's a software update for the prior S3 model.

"My mobile carrier or my home broadband provider could push a Passpoint profile to my devices for Wi-Fi access," Gunning says. "You'll have access [in the future] to both cellular and Wi-Fi as one service, with seamless connectivity, automatic authentication and security."

Towerstream is set to provide exactly that, says Arthur Giftakis, the company's vice president of engineering and network operations. Towerstream supplies business customers with "last mile" wireless high-speed Internet, and leases its Wi-Fi and small cell network infrastructure to a variety of customers such as mobile operators, Internet and cable companies.

It began its Wi-Fi hotzone deployment in 2011. Today, the company has "well over" 1,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, with a total of over 4,000 Ruckus Wireless access points. The Ruckus gear is Hotspot 2.0 certified. "Our whole network is Hotspot 2.0/NGH compliant," Giftakis says. "We're testing with various carriers and service providers."

Those tests include a variety of backend configurations, such as how RADIUS attributes are set up and passed through. Towerstream can support the full panoply of NGH-mandated authentication protocols.

Each Towerstream hotspot has a core architecture: one or more Ruckus access points, 802.11n or 11ac, with Power over Ethernet from a Brocade switch. Some hotspots are grouped and meshed. Backhaul generally is provided by a 400-Mbps radio using a line-of-sight connection to a main Towerstream cell. If necessary, Towerstream can add another backhaul radio, using the same antenna, and doubling the capacity to 800Mbps.

One key benefit of NGH, for carriers, is associating it with location services to facilitate shifting a user among different carrier-provided HotSpot 2.0 Wi-Fi services, and between a Wi-Fi and cellular connections. "Say you're in Times Square at 1 p.m. and the cell site is somewhat congested," Giftakis says. "With NGH, our customers [the carriers/operators] can move you over to a high-capacity Wi-Fi network. They can make those adjustments based on location and time of day. And switch them back to an LTE or a small cell [cellular] network when things lighten up."

With Passpoint compliant clients, a carrier's subscribers also can be moved from, say, a  Towerstream Passpoint hotspot at one location to a Passpoint hotspot from a different provider, such as Time Warner, at another location.

But the real rollout of "cellular-like" carrier Wi-Fi services is still months away. "We've talked with several of our customers, like the city of San Jose, and San Francisco about turning on Hotspot 2.0," says David Callisch, vice president of corporate marketing for Ruckus. "But the problem is that the roaming agreements are just not in place yet. It's riddled with business process' minutia. It will get settled eventually."

The WBA trials for Next Generation Hotspot have been explicitly focused on creating a standard technical profile that can be implemented by carriers and service providers, freeing up these companies to simply negotiate business terms rather than having to marry disparate core networks.

"Every carrier can be...somewhat manic," Giftakis says. "But I think 2014 is a realistic time frame."

Apart from the roaming agreements, it's still unclear how carrier Wi-Fi services will be offered. Some will offer it as a utility, included in a cellular contract. Others may offer it as an option, for an additional monthly fee, though how much that would be is anyone's guess.

In the meantime, if you want to try out a large-scale HotSpot 2.0 network with your new iPhone 5s or 5c or Galaxy S4, starting checking on February flights to Barcelona.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.Twitter:

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Tags wirelessNetworkingWi-Fichina mobileanti-malwareWi-Fi AllianceWLANs / Wi-Fi

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