It’s a Tale of Two Radios. We’re all pretty familiar with the two main Radio Access Networks (or RANs as they are known as in the trade) on our Smartphone or tablet devices that give us that all-important internet connectivity: Cellular mobile and Wi-Fi – and also the big difference between them historically in terms of ease of access to that connectivity from a user experience perspective.
We’ve all been there with Wi-Fi. Whether you’ve popped round a friend’s house or in a restaurant abroad, 9 times out of 10 you’ll need to figure out what the network or “SSID” name is and get a password tapped in before you can be on your connected way. Even our home and office Wi-Fi connections also required a manually entered password on first use before the connection became automatic on subsequent visits.
Our smartphone mobile data connection is at the opposite end of the user experience. We turn on our phones and it begins a very mature and secure network attach, authentication and authorization process which requires zero input from us as users. Our devices and the SIM cards inside, contain all the relevant personal Subscriber information and the highly standardized cellular mobile network processes take over and do the rest.
In fairness, the two ecosystems of mobile networks and Wi-Fi are very different, both technically and commercially. Mobile Network Operators with multi-billion dollar, private, well secured, government regulated radio spectrum, cellular networks vs the world of unlicensed Wi-Fi. Since the dawn of Wi-Fi there have been plenty of valid reasons why, in particular, Mobile operators with highly controlled, regulated networks would have been slow to embrace usage of unregulated Wi-Fi as part of their Subscriber experience.
Things have steadily been changing recently thanks to the work of the Wi-Fi Alliance’s Wi-Fi Certified Passpoint program, AKA Hotspot 2.0. The Wi-Fi Alliance initiative working with the Wireless Broadband Alliance’s Next Generation Hotspot program drove partnerships between mobile operators, network equipment and device manufacturers towards a goal of more seamless, secure access to Wi-Fi for Subscribers of various types of networks and to effectively enable cellular mobile style connectivity on Wi-Fi networks. Passpoint or HS 2.0 brings automatic network discovery and selection to Wi-Fi networks and as a result greatly improving the potential of the overall user connectivity experience. Two radios working together for the common good of the user!
HS 2.0 network deployments are steadily on the increase and chances are there’s one nearer you than you realize! Take the AT&T Passpoint network at my local Home Depot, for example. As I approach the store I’m alerted that my AT&T Samsung Galaxy S7 Active device has attached to the “attwifi – Passpoint” network and I have full connectivity. I’ve been auto connected on the basis of my AT&T SIM card based mobile identity and this has happened seamlessly and securely with no user intervention required on my part. There is a cellular-like negotiation between the device and the Wi-Fi network at 802.11u or layer 2 level before any internet connectivity has been established. The network advertises what networks it supports and the device can query the capabilities before attempting to connect based on the network responses.
All manner of Subscriber credentials can be supported using Passpoint when the device is appropriately provisioned, not just cellular mobile devices but also the more common typical username/password access. It all depends on the nature of your home subscription. Regardless of Subscription type e.g. a SIM-based Smartphone or a Wi-Fi only enabled tablet, the authentication process is protected using the latest techniques for secure exchange and interrogation of credentials.
Passpoint’s auto discovery and selection is determined by roaming agreements between the Home Service Providers and the visited Wi-Fi networks. Today the “attwifi – Passpoint” network is primarily enjoyed by AT&T’s Subscribers and, subject to commercial roaming agreements being in place, it could just as easily welcome Subscribers from service providers from anywhere in the world looking for that precious internet access while overseas! The latest release, Passpoint Release 2 also provides the capability for the local Wi-Fi network to identify users who would not automatically attach and offer them a subscription. The network then organizes the auto provisioning of the user’s device with these next-gen, Passpoint style credentials. This is known as Passpoint OSU or Online Signup. The user now has network-wide access and may also have additional access to other Wi-Fi networks, depending on agreements the provisioning network has in place.
It’s all quite a contrast with my experience of being in restaurants while traveling abroad over the years, trying to keep my roaming cellular data usage to a minimum. One eye mulling over the menu, the other trying to get a member of wait staff’s attention to enquire “Do you have Wi-Fi? You do! What’s the SSID and password, please?”
Thanks to the advances of Passpoint / Hotspot 2.0, those two radio networks on our devices are close to being on par in providing the always best connected user experience we all crave.