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18 June 2012

Wi-Fi roaming – coming to a hotspot near you

In theory, the massive proliferation of public Wi-Fi hotspots means it’s getting easier every day to log on to the Internet when you’re out and about. According to Informa, there will be 5.8 million hotspots worldwide by 2015.

In practice, connecting to a hotspot is not always that easy. Even though the public Wi-Fi network may be free, you often still have the hassle of logging on, and if it’s a paid-for service, you also need to prove you are eligible to use it so that you can be billed appropriately.

The Wi-Fi Alliance wants to make all this much easier, and to achieve this it has launched a programme called Wi-Fi Certified Passpoint. It’s working hand in glove on this with the Wireless Broadband Alliance (the people who represent GPRS and 3G telephone networks).

In theory, mobile networks stand to earn much more revenue if users send data over their wireless infrastructure, but as consultancy Juniper points out, these networks could find themselves under severe strain in the coming years, so operators will be glad to offload some of the demand to Wi-Fi and fixed-line routes.

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Juniper says the annual data traffic transmitted via mobile networks will reach over 7,500 PB (petabytes) by 2016, which it says equates to 3 trillion music track downloads. But it says by then the networks will be offloading 59 per cent of their data, and the US and Europe will account for three quarters of that.

Wi-Fi roaming requires buy-in from hotspot providers and device manufacturers, so it won’t happen overnight, but the good news is that an authoritative scheme is now in place.

A key element is the ability for the mobile device to "self-authenticate" in background mode, so that users won’t have to do anything in order to log on. It may do this using SIM card details if the device has a SIM, or the Universal Subscriber Identity Module if it has one of these. If not, it may be that the system will use a standardised login procedure called TTLS (EAP-Tunnelled Transport Layer Security).

With all this in place, users should be able to "roam" between Wi-Fi hotspots without constantly logging on, or even realising they have moved between providers. Networks will still provide security to WPA2-Enterprise standards, so none of this will mean open season for hackers.

The first phase of development, including security and automatic network discovery, should be ready by the middle of this year, and quick account setup should follow next year.

 

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