Hotspot Advancements Signal Wi-Fi Evolution

Multiple announcements of advanced Wi-Fi hotspot capability have been announced in the past week during the lead up to Mobile World Congress 2011. These announcements signify a significant effort to provide Wi-Fi hotspots that are easier to use, provide advanced capabilities, and can integrate with broader cellular mobile networks.

Cisco announced their MOVE Strategic Framework, which incorporates Service Provider Wi-Fi. Ruckus announced a Wireless Services Gateway for integration of back-end Wi-Fi and Cellular management and billing. Earlier this week, Nokia announced Smart WLAN, a software package aimed at automating roaming between cell and Wi-Fi networks. And finally, the IEEE 802.11u amendment is scheduled for final approval this month to provide standards-based advanced hotspot capabilities and inter-working with external networks.

I've written numerous times about the proliferation of Wi-Fi hotspots (including AT&T managed hotspot service), the growing need for cellular network operators to offload data from overburdened 3G networks, the growing importance of mobile commerce and marketing (especially with the Mobile Retail Initiative), Wi-Fi hotspots as a medium for consumer interaction, and the importance of the IEEE 802.11u amendment in integrating cellular and Wi-Fi networks.

Why are these announcements important? Because they signify that the Wi-Fi industry has turned a corner. No longer is Wi-Fi being regarded as the ugly unlicensed spectrum step-child of much larger licensed spectrum networks. The realization that Wi-Fi is important as a complementary service to cellular mobile networks has sunk in. Wi-Fi can provide localized capacity growth sufficient to meet surging mobile data usage, and this strategy has now permeated carrier roadmaps to the point that the leading Wi-Fi market vendor has responded. In addition, retailers are clamoring to better engage customers where they have the most influence, in-aisle through mobile advertising. The lack of sufficient indoor cellular penetration coupled with the high expense of cell repeater and DAS solutions, and immature femtocell solutions are driving retailers toward Wi-Fi hotspot deployment.

These announcements are more about industry innovation and service integration capabilities (what Cisco calls Hotspot 2.0) than about incremental hardware improvements.

Cisco has done a nice job capturing the requirements needed for Hotspot 2.0 in this whitepaper just released. It's important to note, that while this announcement is geared toward mobile network operators, it is equally applicable to privately operated hotspots by independent establishments such as retailers, municipalities, educational institutions, and others.

Hotspot 2.0 Drivers:
  • Growing Mobile Data Demand
  • Economic Benefits of Offloading Mobile Data from Cellular to Wi-Fi
  • Usability Problems of Today's Wi-Fi Hotspots
  • Security Threats of Open Wi-Fi Hotspots
Hotspot 2.0 Solutions:
  • Selective IP Traffic Offload (Carrier Core Network vs. Public Internet)
  • QoS Preservation
  • Improved End-User Experience on Wi-Fi Hotspots
    • Automated Network Selection, Authentication and Roaming by Devices (not Users)
    • Flexible Authentication Options to Support Multiple Devices and Roaming Agreements
    • In-Band Account Provisioning
    • Network Type Advertisement (private, free public, paid public)
    • Network capability advertisement through the new layer 2 protocols (GAS and ANQP; similar to EAP where the access point acts as an intermediary proxy between client and server)
  • Service Advertisement and Monetization through MSAP (Mobility Services Advertisement Protocol)
However, some very big outstanding questions remain:
  • Infrastructure Availability of Hotspot 2.0 Functionality
  • Mobile Device Availability of Hotspot 2.0 Functionality
  • Reduction of Handset and Carrier Implementation Variances
  • Independent Network Operator Integration with Carrier Networks (via roaming agreements, etc.)
There is still a long way to go to realize advanced Wi-Fi hotspot services and seamless integration of cellular and Wi-Fi networks, but this is a great step in the right direction!

Wi-Fi is truly growing beyond its roots, from best-effort to mission critical, from private to public networks, from indoor to outdoor, and from isolated networks to large-scale integrated access networks. It's my firm opinion that "Hotspot 2.0" will prove to be a significant evolutionary milestone for Wi-Fi as a technology.

Come, share my excitement!