WiFi roaming on a grand scale is the order of the day as a rising percentage of wireless data travels over the unlicensed-band technology, and as a wide range of service provid-ers put WiFi at the heart of their networks.
Just weeks after the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) – the grandfather of WiFi roam-ing – announced agreements to allow movement between 23 operators of city networks, CableLabs, the cable industry R&D organization, pledged to launch a roaming hub for as many as nine US cable operators, by early 2017. That could further accelerate the creation of a nationwide network of cableco-deployed hotspots to supplement the CableWiFi Alli-ance’s huge roll-out.
A nationwide roaming agreement of that kind, which could provide seamless access to many hundreds of thousands of hotspots and homespots, would be a threatening thing for mobile operators, despite their potential use of the network for offload. But it would mini-mize the need for WiFi-first operators – expected to include the largest cableco, Comcast, soon – to rely on cellular MVNO partnerships. That, in turn, would tip the balance of pow-er against the MNOs, in terms of the ability to keep mobile users on their networks to monetize them; and in discussions with cablecos about fees for WiFi offload versus MVNO access.
Mitch Ashley, president of CableLabs’ Kyrio for-profit subsidiary (formerly NetworkFX), said in an interview with FierceCable that his unit expects to launch WiFi roaming ser-vices for up to nine US cablecos in the next three quarters; and that it aimed to sign roam-ing deals between this collective of smaller operators, and the major players, most of which are also members of the CableWiFi Alliance. That Alliance was formed in 2012 by
Comcast, Cablevision, Time Warner Cable, Bright House Networks and Cox Communica-tions and now has about 500,000 locations. Non-member Charter recently acquired TWC and BrightHouse while Altice of France acquired Cablevision but, so far at least, the roam-ing arrangement remain the same.
Ashley said in the interview: “We will connect into members of the Cable WiFi Alliance. We are a complement to it. I don’t see us joining the Cable WiFi Alliance. But we will inter-connect with their members.”
He added: “The WiFi roaming hub is a service that we put together targeted primarily at the mid-tier operators to provide them roaming capabilities across their footprint as well as to larger cable providers. It drastically increases the footprint of a mid-tier operator such as Midco.” Midco is upgrading its public WiFi network in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to support the hub. Kyrio recently completed technical and field trials of its hub with two other unnamed mid-tier cablecos.
The organization is also in talks with non-cable WiFi operators and Kyrio says it is open to aggregators like Boingo or telcos like AT&T, though it has not signed deals with these companies.
Kyrio will move from its current AAA authentication method to the WiFi Alliance’s Passpoint technology at some point in the future, adding seamless access for SIM-enabled devices and improved security.
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More and more, people throughout the world are relying on their smart devices to stay connected with friends, family, and colleagues when they are traveling. Cellular roaming services have been available for quite some time. However, it’s been estimated that as many as 70% of international travelers often rely on W-Fi networks instead of traditional mobile services according to a white paper entitled “Wi-Fi Roaming Business Case” recently published by the WBA.
What does this new reality mean for service providers? It means that there is a huge opportunity for growing revenues.
Service providers have the opportunity to leverage the population’s familiarity with and general acceptance of Wi-Fi by creating new services and products. This will encourage additional roaming usage and generate new revenue.
For fixed service providers, a next generation managed Wi-Fi network will improve the overall user experience in the following ways:
- Wi-Fi hotspot connections will be simplified.
- Roaming between Wi-Fi hotspots will be seamless.
- Wi-Fi hotspots will have better performance.
- Connection to Wi-Fi hotspots will be secure.
- End users will have more privacy.
- And, end users will have access to a much larger Wi-Fi network in a wide range of geographies and venues.
For mobile service providers, a next generation managed Wi-Fi network creates substantial business opportunities that include:
- Wi-Fi roaming extends their mobile network reach.
- It enables them to instantly gain a large hotspot footprint.
- They can pay for actual usage rather than investing in network that may not get fully utilized.
- They can avoid capital and operational costs while still providing Wi-Fi services to their customers.
- Also, without those expenses, smaller operators can focus on fast-tracking business growth through Wi-Fi roaming.
A Top Down View of the Wi-Fi Roaming Ecosystem
The three primary stakeholder groups in the Wi-Fi roaming ecosystem are the visited Wi-Fi network providers, hub and clearing houses, and subscribers.
Visited Wi-Fi network operators include a wide range of entities that provide access and Wi-Fi connectivity to subscribers. There are fixed network operators such as Comcast. There are mobile network owner/operators such as AT&T. There are venues such as conference centers. There are multi-site establishments such as hotel chains. There are millions of one-off locations all around the world that offer free and open Wi-Fi. And, there are aggregators such as Boingo that have built their business around connecting and managing access to pools of Wi-Fi networks.
The Wi-Fi hub is essentially modeled on GSM roaming. It provides a central connectivity point between the visited Wi-Fi networks and the home subscriber networks by handling interconnectivity as well as settlement and clearing. Interconnectivity involves maintaining information associated with each Wi-Fi access point in each Wi-Fi network, and managing the authentication and authorization process of an end-customer to that visited network back to their home network database. Settlement and clearing involves the accounting of usage between networks and reconciling that usage across the visited Wi-Fi networks to ensure that users can get billed and providers can get paid.
Subscribers are the end customers that purchase Wi-Fi services from visited Wi-Fi network operators. They rely on mobile access and will benefit directly from Wi-Fi roaming. Typically, subscribers use an app or their device’s built-in functionality to find appropriate Wi-Fi access points and managed the connection process. Subscribers have a direct billing relationship with their home service provider and purchase a service plan that includes Wi-Fi roaming.
With all of the stakeholders in place, one of the essential components for supporting Wi-Fi roaming is the interoperability between the visited service providers and the home services providers. Because operators will take different approaches to making Wi-Fi roaming a reality, a range of business models will emerge to take advantage of new revenue opportunities.
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