How Passpoint could make Wi-Fi hotspots more like mobile data services

The Wi-Fi Certified Passpoint initiative could open the door for Wi-Fi roaming between carriers

We all love Wi-Fi, as long as we're logged into one particular hotspot and aren't moving much.

But what if Wi-Fi worked more like our mobile data services that gave us wireless connectivity without the constant interruptions that come from switching hotspots and that gave us a deeper level of security than anything we get when we connect to public hotspots? Happily, the team over at the Wi-Fi Alliance is cooking up just such a technology that utilizes IEEE's recent 802.11u amendment to deliver Wi-Fi connectivity that can let you more seamlessly and securely jump from one hotspot to another.

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Known as the Wi-Fi Certified Passpoint program, the initiative essentially creates a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and allows you to access any in your area that take part in the program. What's more, any hotspots that take part in Passpoint will allow you to connect without entering in any login or billing information since the program supports Subscriber Identity Module (SIM)-based authentication that cellular networks currently use to grant users seamless handoffs between cell sites. This also means that carriers can forge Wi-Fi roaming agreements with one another that could, for instance, give AT&T subscribers access to Verizon hotspots without having to enter in any information or manually connect to different networks.

Kelly Davis Felner, marketing director at the Wi-Fi Alliance, emphasizes that while Passpoint may allow carriers to set up roaming agreements, it doesn't guarantee that they will do so. In other words, don't expect that Passpoint will suddenly make every single Wi-Fi hotspot in your area available to you without adding any login credentials. You do have to initially log in to your own Passpoint account and then you have to check if there are any Passpoint-supported hotspots in your area.

"Passpoint is an equipment certification program that enables roaming," she says. "It gets all these hotspots to do roaming in the same way so that operators can forge roaming agreements among themselves. It's sort of like we're getting everybody speaking the same language."

The other big advantage with Passpoint is that it comes complete with WPA-2 Enterprise security capabilities that will make it vastly safer to connect to public hotspots than today. Unlike today's public Wi-Fi hotspots, a WPA-2 Enterprise hotspot will allow the network to define users' authentication levels and manage traffic to improve network performance. Felner says that wireless carriers will be very interested in Passpoint once it comes out since it will give them a more reliable way to offload their mobile traffic while giving users a wireless experience more consistent with what they expect out of 3G or 4G wireless connectivity.

"Carriers are already using Wi-Fi and that is why element of why it will be successful," she says. "The user affinity for the technology is already very strong."

The first phase of the Passpoint program will launch by midyear 2012 and will include network discovery and selection protocols, seamless network transition and access capabilities, and WPA-2 Enterprise security. The second phase of the program won't launch until 2013, when it will allow operators to enable subscriber policies and will give users a streamlined process for creating their own Passpoint accounts.

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This story, "How Passpoint could make Wi-Fi hotspots more like mobile data services" was originally published by Network World.

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