Joining a carrier Wi-Fi hot spot on your smartphone or tablet will soon be as simple as turning on your device. That means no more scrolling through lists of available Wi-Fi networks, and no more typing passwords to join networks.
Wireless carriers all over the world have been turning to Wi-Fi to alleviate network congestion, but the onus of actually getting on those networks has been on individual subscribers. A set of new standards being developed will soon change that.
The IEEE technical standards body is developing 802.11u and the Wi-Fi Alliance has developed its Hotspot 2.0 initiative to further define and implement the use of the new standard. The new standards will essentially define how hot spots are discovered by devices and also provide a uniform mechanism for allowing subscribers to sign on to the networks, without the user selecting a particular network or entering a password. It also provides WPA 2 security to ensure that subscribers have the same level of security they expect when they're on a carrier's cellular network.
"This will make using Wi-Fi as easy as when you arrive in another country and turn on your phone, and your phone automatically discovers a new network for you to use," said Niels Jonker, chief technology officer of Boingo, a company that sells consumer Wi-Fi service and wholesales Wi-Fi access to operators. "Subscribers don't really need to know nor do they care what network they're on. They just want it to work."
Wi-Fi, which uses unlicensed spectrum and offers much faster download speeds than cellular networks, is an ideal solution to offload traffic from their cellular networks onto a lower-cost network, especially in dense urban areas and in places where lots of people gather, such as stadiums.
This is why AT&T has been deploying Wi-Fi hot zones in heavily trafficked areas, like Times Square in New York City and Wrigley Field in Chicago. And it's why China Mobile has plans to build 1 million hot spots in the next couple of years.
But Wi-Fi isn't without its own set of issues. Even though almost every smartphone or tablet sold today comes with Wi-Fi technology embedded, not every wireless subscriber takes advantage of Wi-Fi when it's available. And the reason is simple: It's not easy to use.
If a subscriber wants to take advantage of a Wi-Fi hot spot, he has to work at it. Subscribers often have to scroll through a long list of available networks to find one that they have credentials to access. And then they have to enter those credentials into the appropriate field to get connected. And if it's a hot spot that requires a fee, they must also enter a credit card number or some other form of payment.
In addition to the IEEE's 802.11u and the Wi-Fi Alliance's Hotspot 2.0 initiative, another industry group called the Wireless Broadband Association and the GSM Association are working on standards that build on these standards to define protocols that will allow carriers around the globe to roam onto each other's Wi-Fi hot spots.
For example, this means that if you are an AT&T customer in the U.S., you will not only have access to AT&T's 30,000 wireless hot spots here at home, but you might also be able to roam onto Orange's or O2's hot spots in Europe. (AT&T already offers some roaming in other countries, but these standards could simplify this process for subscribers and carriers.)
For consumers, seamless roaming onto carrier Wi-Fi networks means that they'll likely get faster Net connections in places where a typical cellular network may be overloaded: Think an NFL football stadium on game day or Times Square during the holidays. With the roaming arrangements among foreign operators, it could mean paying a much reduced data roaming fee while traveling.
And for carriers, the seamless Wi-Fi connections relieve congestion and lower their costs, especially in places that can be overwhelmed with data. The need for additional network capacity is very real. Just ask any AT&T iPhone customer in New York City and San Francisco over the past few years. And even Verizon Wireless, which has traditionally managed its network resources well and is ahead of the competition in deploying more efficient 4G LTE technology, says more network capacity is needed.
The wireless capacity crunch
But getting that capacity isn't easy. Carriers can only slice and dice their existing spectrum so much. Some carriers, like AT&T and Verizon, are trying to acquire more spectrum from other carriers or companies, such as cable operators, which bought spectrum in previous auctions. The Federal Communications Commission has promised to identify, clear, and auction off more wireless spectrum, but that process has been slow and auctions for new spectrum are still years away.
Wi-Fi offers a more immediate relief to carriers already in a crunch.
"Many networks are straining to keep up demand from subscribers with iPhones and Android smartphones," said Craig Mathias, a principal analyst at the Fairpoint Group. "They need to offload traffic in high demand areas. And the best way to do that is through Wi-Fi. And Hostpot 2.0 addresses many of the issues associated with making the use of Wi-Fi transparent to end users."
AT&T, which has faced some of the biggest issues with network congestion, has been pushing its Wi-Fi offload strategy the past couple of years. As mentioned earlier, the company has built Wi-Fi hot zones in several cities, and it plans to continue building others. It has more than 30,000 hot spots around the U.S. in Starbucks coffee shops and other retail locations.
And the program has been growing by leaps and bounds. Since 2008 there's been a 60 percent growth in usage. And the company noted in its most recent earnings that access to AT&T's Wi-Fi network tripled in 2011 compared to 2010. AT&T customers made more than 1.2 billion connections to its Wi-Fi hot spots in 2011 or more than 3 million connections per day.
Even though these growth figures are impressive, AT&T is still only offloading a fraction of its traffic to Wi-Fi today. These standards could help AT&T and other carriers leverage these Wi-Fi networks even more.
More Wi-Fi doesn't mean cheap data.
But consumers shouldn't expect easier access to carrier Wi-Fi to mean that their wireless data bills will go down.
"I wouldn't expect a dramatic decrease in data charges," Mathias said. "Carriers' costs are still rising."
Depending on how carriers use this technology and how they set up their billing policies, this may mean that consumers no longer get a discount for seeking out public Wi-Fi. Now when a smartphone or other connected device subscriber is using Wi-Fi of any kind, whether it's at home, at work, in a coffee shop, or in a carrier hot spot, that data usage is not counted toward a user's monthly data total.
If Wi-Fi is integrated into a wireless service, subscribers may not know when they're using Wi-Fi and when they're using a carrier's cellular network. So operators may just include Wi-Fi use in their total package, like they allow access to 3G and 4G network service.
"We've already seen unlimited data plans go the way of the dodo bird," Jonker said. "And I don't see it coming back. Wi-Fi isn't really free either, since someone still has to pay the cost of maintaining the network and doing the backhaul. But maybe carriers will offer some slight discount."
So when will consumers start to see seamless Wi-Fi access via these new standards? That depends on how quickly handset and other connected device makers update their products to the new standards. The Wi-Fi Alliance said it will begin certifying equipment starting this summer. The new standards don't require new hardware, but it does require a software upgrade.
Jonker said that some smartphones bought in 2011 could be upgraded with software only. But he expects that faster processing capabilities may preclude some older devices from a simple software upgrade. He predicts that some 802.11u and Wi-Fi Alliance certified devices will hit the market at the end of 2012. And these devices will likely proliferate over the next few years. "It takes time to get devices throughout the market that support the technology," he said. "So I think it will be 2015 before 802.11u is widely adopted throughout the industry."