Hotspot 2.0 - Enabler and equalizer

Two specifications 802.11u and Hotspot 2.0 have emerged to facilitate mobile devices to discover and automatically connect to Wi-Fi hotspot networks that their mobile or roaming subscription includes. The dream of seamless mobile to Wi-Fi roaming is close.

Hotspot 2.0 is a Wi-Fi Alliance initiated specification for automated secure authentication, and device discovery and selection. It is intended to enable seamless roaming between cellular and Wi-Fi networks, and it is accompanied by a certification program known as Passpoint interoperability certification. Hotspot 2.0 incorporates a significant portion of the IEEE 802.11u standard which is designed to enable interworking with external networks

What Hotspot 2.0 does
Hotspot 2.0 compliant mobile devices or “Passpoint devices” can discover more about the access points they detect around them. By interrogating Passpoint-compliant APs, a Wi-Fi client can learn which mobile operator networks are accessible through that hotspot, and automatically join the best network for which it has valid credentials.

Mobile devices can thus make intelligent, policy-driven network selection, and when they have credentials for one of the service providers offering access, they can connect seamlessly using SIM or Non-SIM authentication without user intervention.

Hotspot 2.0 enables the seamless mobile to Wi-Fi roaming and Wi-Fi offload, that the industry has been moving toward for some time, and rapid adoption is expected, but some operators are on the fence. On the flipside, it is also a key component in enabling roaming partnerships between operators.

So, as much as Hotspot 2.0 is an enabler, it is also a great equalizer. It makes it easier for new players to get into Wi-Fi roaming game, and for smaller mobile operators to rapidly expand their roaming footprint, through partnerships with other Hotspot 2.0 networks. Who forges roaming agreements with whom, will be a crucial factor in how carrier Wi-Fi plays out over the coming years.

Other roaming initiatives
Hotspot 2.0 is just one of several related initiatives. With Hotspot 2.0, the decision to switch networks is device driven. But Service Providers are already looking beyond this to a scheme known as network-directed roaming, in which the network, not the device, makes the roaming decision. This could be done for a number of reasons: to optimize spectrum efficiency, manage capacity or perhaps favor less expensive roaming partners over expensive ones. Such capabilities are expected to exist in Hotspot 2.0 release 2 and in the 3GPP's Access Network Discovery and Selection Function (ANDSF) enhancements expected in 3GPP Rel 12. But in order for this to work, Hotspot 2.0 and ANDSF need to be joined at the hip and Ericsson is behind that happening.

CableLabs has its own initiatives too. The ROAM specification defines architecture requirements for best effort data roaming among cable operator Wi-Fi networks and its Wireless Service Locator initiative is an attempt to build a master directory for sharing Wi-Fi hotspot location information.

All of these initiatives ultimately have similar goals, but they are being driven by three competing forces, the Wi-Fi industry, the Mobile industry and the Cable industry, so there is some inevitable conflict of interests. In the final analysis, it is likely support for all of these standards will be needed to fully realize the dream of seamless session mobility not just device mobility between heterogeneous Wi-Fi and Cellular networks.

Carrier Wi-Fi momentum
Many operators are still on the fence about Hotspot 2.0 and have not committed to it fully. A recent report from Infonetics indicates 40% of operators expect to integrate Hostpot 2.0 into more than 50% of their installed access points by 2015. While Comcast, who is a member of the CableWiFi consortium, has recently indicated it is on their roadmap, few service providers have implemented anything yet. Two notable exceptions are TWC and Boingo. In April 2014 Time Warner Cable, another CableWiFi consortium member, launched “TWCWiFi-Passpoint” on its 33K strong hotspot network, claiming it to be the largest Passpoint-enabled network in the country to-date. Boingo has begun to roll it out too, and currently has Hotspot 2.0 enabled at 23 US airports.

Nevertheless, latest reports show no let-up in Wi-Fi equipment purchases. Wi-Fi enabled Small cells are forecast to grow at 122% CAGR thru 2020. Wireless AP shipments to services providers have grown 100% annually, since 2010 according to Del O’ro, while Research Markets reports a CAGR of 33.34% overall for the Global Carrier Wi-Fi Equipment Market thru 2016.

WLAN equipment vendors and device vendors have been faster to embrace Hotspot 2.0 than the carriers themselves. By the end of 2014, all major WLAN vendors will support it and many already do. Hotspot 2.0 support incorporated into Apple’s latest iOS 7means that 60+% of the installed base of Apple smartphones and tablets are Hotspot 2.0 ready. While Samsung already announced Hotspot 2.0 support in April 2013 with the launch of the Galaxy S4.

The Race for Hotspots
For years, MSOs have been in a race to capture the best Wi-Fi real-estate: large public venues, hotel chains, food and retail chains and transportation hubs. Now there is a real race to grow the biggest Wi-Fi roaming network and marketing race to claim the most hotspots. For example, the CableWiFi consortium comprising Cablevision, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications and Bright House Networks recently announced their network has grown to 250,000 hotspots, available to qualified customers of its six members, while individual members are making their own announcements: Comcast claims over 1M Xfinity hotspots deployed with ambitions to grow it to 8 million by end of 2014; TWC claims 33K and so on.

The recent claim from Comcast of 1M hotspots may seem exaggerated, but it depends what you’re counting. As in the case of BT in the UK who claims 5.2M hotspots. How many of these are their own, or part of FON’s network, or those of a partner is anyone’s guess. The fact is, these hotspots are not the traditional hotspot that comes to mind, in a mall or fast food restaurant. Over 95% of BT’s hotspot network consists of residential homespots which share a part of their capacity under a public SSID for roaming BT subscribers. Whatever the number, whatever the format, we are seeing an explosion of both Carrier Wi-Fi deployments and claims.

The Hotspot redefined
Hotspot count variation is due in part to a blurry definition of what a Wi-Fi hotspot is, and in part to ambiguity about whether one’s own device count or footprint is being measured. Either way, today’s Wi-Fi hotspot can be pretty much any Wi-Fi device that allows secure or unsecured access to the internet to guests or visitors. So a hotspot can now manifest as the traditional Wi-Fi zone in a mall or airport, Wi-Fi access at a retailer and Wi-Fi roaming service outside someone’s home.

Following BT’s lead, Cable operators have latched onto the homespot concept, and plan to upgrade large numbers of Wi-Fi enabled residential gateways to broadcast Hotspot 2.0 enabled SSIDs to the roaming subscriber base. Since cable operators collectively serve over 50% of US homes, the number of hotspots or homespots they could enabled is staggering. Read more about Cable operators rolling out homespots. BT incidentally has already begun to monetize its Homespot network beyond the existing subscriber base. It now offers pre-paid Wi-Fi roaming plans (by-the-hour, day, or month) to anyone. Pre-pay is likely to be one of the top monetization strategies of hotspot operators.

Wi-Fi Hotspot features
Wi-Fi functionality on most residential broadband routers is pretty basic. It was not designed for being an intelligent node in a metropolitan wide Wi-Fi roaming network. To build a reliable and scalable hotspot network as an overlay on existing Wi-Fi infrastructure, service providers will need to step-up Wi-Fi management – from radio resource management (RRM) to security and roaming to application-specific QoS, borrowing many features that exist today in enterprise-grade WLAN systems.

Services Providers have a journey ahead of them to make Wi-Fi a profit center in their network. They will need to add functionality to installed equipment, and integrate Wi-Fi management with Subscriber systems and OSS. Time to market is critical, as the land grab is ongoing and the partnering frenzy just ahead.

embedUR systems and Hotspot 2.0
embedUR is an embedded systems engineering firm specializing in Wireless. In the context of this article, embedUR works with leading WLAN and Telco equipment providers to help them build the Wi-Fi features needed by Service Provider’s for their existing and future Wi-Fi hotspot networks.