The cable industry is expected to move aggressively into so-called “WiFi-first” strategies for mobile voice and data services in the years ahead, and some significant technology pieces to make that a reality are rapidly falling into place.
Playing a big part: The WiFi Alliance, which last week unveiled a new set of “Passpoint” certification features that will enable WiFi networks to behave more like cellular networks, putting WiFi a step closer to becoming a carrier-grade service platform.
Passpoint, a program launched in 2012 that has received input from the cable industry, aims to simplify the user experience while also beefing up the security of WiFi hotspots. In addition to supporting a seamless handoff as users move from one hotspot to another, new features being tacked on to Passpoint (see table) also allow service providers to prioritize which hotspots in a given area the user hooks into.
The new Passpoint features and the launch of the broader certification program will enable the technology to reach “an inflection point,” Greg Ennis, vice president of technology at the WiFi Alliance, said. He predicted 2015 “will certainly be a major deployment year.”
Passpoint adoption is in the early phases. Boingo and Time Warner Cable, which announced a roaming pact in June, are among a small but growing batch of service providers that have either rolled out or begun to test Passpoint technology.
TWC has already integrated Passpoint into its WiFi network and has taken some bigger steps as well. A TWC official confirmed the operator recently enhanced its WiFi Finder and My TWC mobile apps to create an automated, more seamless connection to the MSO’s Passpoint-enabled hotspots.
Passpoint is viewed as an enabler for “WiFi-first” mobile voice and data services that use cellular networks as a fallback. Craig Moffett, partner and senior analyst at MoffettNathanson Research, thinks the cable industry is well positioned for such a strategy, even if the technical wrinkles of the concept aren’t expected to be ironed out for another two to three years.
“The time is coming when WiFi will shift from being a ‘secondary’ network to being a primary one; instead of thinking of WiFi as an alternative to cellular where WiFi is available, we will instead being to think of cellular as a backup network needed only when WiFi is not,” Moffett wrote in a report last week.
Moffett said the objective would be for the WiFi portion of the network to handle 80% of the offload, with the balance handled by the cellular network.
Moffett said he doesn’t believe cable will have to blanket the country with WiFi to make the model work, citing a Cisco Systems study indicating that 90% of all wireless usage happens at retail locations, public locations and travel locations. Potentially a very small number of locations could capture a very substantial amount of wireless traffic.
The latest Passpoint certification features complement existing support for seamless connectivity and WPA2 security as follows:
Online sign-up and immediate account provisioning: This streamlined, on-the- spot process allows users to sign up for a new operator when in the presence of a Passpoint-enabled hotspot.
Secure registration: Provides a uniform, public key infrastructure to ensure the provisioning process is secured with the appropriate credentials.
Operator policy: Enables service providers to distribute their specific subscriber policies, such as which networks to join and in what order of preference.