Feature Story

What's Hot About Next-Generation Hotspots

by Jason Deign

The humble Wi-Fi hotspot is getting a makeover that will bring new benefits to mobile users, businesses and service providers.

Coming soon to a street corner near you: the next-generation Wi-Fi hotspot. One where you do not have to bother with passwords or signup pages,or even finding out whether it is there. You will be using it before you even know it. The idea behind next-generation hotspots is simple: to make their use as seamless as the experience you currently have on the cellular network with your mobile phone. So your smartphone, PDA, laptop, or other wireless device will log onto them without any effort on your part.

"The basic value proposition is seamless authentication and consistent security, so that you do not have to worry about all the various technologies that are out there for authenticating," states Peter Jarich, vice president for consumer and infrastructure services at Current Analysis.

He continues: "Seamless is really a word that gets overused but I think it is appropriate here. It is automatic network selection, having most steps take place without you having to worry about putting in a password every time, and connecting securely."

*Courtesy Wireless Broadband Alliance

Part of the deal is that next-generation systems will also be able to distinguish whether you, the user, will get a better deal from connecting to a Wi-Fi hotspot or staying on the mobile network.

Say you have a good hotspot connection and want to watch a video: your device will switch to Wi-Fi so you can take advantage of the improved bandwidth to get a better picture. But if the connection is poor, or congested, and all you want to do is send an email, the system will keep you on the mobile network to safeguard your experience and that of others. Next-generation hotspots are not just handy for users, though.

Mobile service providers are keen to take advantage of the technology in order to reduce their costs and provide a better service to customers, which in turn can improve customer loyalty and average revenue per user, two of the biggest concerns for phone companies.

To take an extreme but very real example, imagine a major sports stadium. Most of the time it remains empty. But once or twice a week it fills to the brim with people keen to snap photos or video with their smartphones. These images are usually sent straight to other people or posted on social networks, placing a massive strain on the mobile network.

Mobile service providers have a headache making sure there is enough bandwidth available for all their customers at major sporting events. And if you have ever struggled to get a mobile signal in a stadium then you will know they do not always succeed.

Fitting stadia with next-generation hotspot technology, however, could give mobile service providers a way of providing much greater bandwidth, more cheaply and easily than having to set up additional cellular masts and backhaul capacity.

What goes for stadia also applies, to a lesser extent, to other locations that suffer from mobile network congestion. In general, it costs mobile services providers a lot of money to carry data-heavy applications over the cellular network. Next-generation hotspots could give them a cost-effective alternative. That does not mean mobile service providers will be the only ones switching to the new technology, though.

Currently many hotspots belong to independent operators that sell their connectivity to mobile service providers or that provide international roaming services. These groups also have a major incentive to make access easier by upgrading to next-generation hotspot technology.

*Courtesy Wireless Broadband Alliance

However, implementing this technology is easier said than done.

For a start, says Tiago Rodrigues, program director at the Wireless Broadband Alliance, one of the main industry bodies pushing for next-generation hotspots: "You need access points, routers, and controllers that have automated, secure authentication."  

Currently, he notes: "Many devices do not have these features, so they would need to be redeployed."

At the same time, wireless consumer devices such as smartphones and tablets have to have automated subscriber identity module authentication, and vendors such as Nokia and Sony are only just beginning to deploy these.

Finally, says Rodrigues: "You also need policy technology; if you just offload everything from the mobile network onto a Wi-Fi hotspot then you simply overload a different network. Operators have to know when to switch a customer from one network technology to another."

Despite all this, moves to implement next-generation hotspot technology are gathering speed. "Last year we did a trial with around 40 companies and some are already deploying next-generation hotspots," comments Rodrigues.

He adds: "This year we will be trialing the policies and from the second half of 2013 we will start to see initial announcements. I expect we will have a lot of news in 2013."


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