One of the overriding concerns of mobile carriers is running out of cellular capacity. They are taking many steps to confront that challenge. A key tactic is to off-load as much traffic as possible onto Wi-Fi networks.
That’s a well-known and growing procedure which, in addition to stretching capacity, can cut costs. The Holy Grail is a session that can jump from cellular to Wi-Fi and back again without re-authentication or any other disruption. Wi-Fi must be outfitted with the roaming capability cellular has long enjoyed, and it must be possible for devices to pass the Wi-Fi/cellular boundary.
It is never easy to retrofit a new function, especially one that is system-wide, onto an existing infrastructure. Steve Livingston, the senior vice president of Open Mobile Exchange for iPass, used a Light Reading commentary to discuss what needs to happen to make full Wi-Fi roaming a reality. It is a commentary in which the details move quickly to the forefront, but a couple of sentences from near the beginning sum up the situation:
However, the reality is that ubiquity is still a long way off. There are multiple providers, multiple standards, and a mix of legacy and NGH infrastructure.
The need to use the word “multiple” multiple times when the topic under discussion is the creation of ubiquity and efficiency generally is a bad sign.
Livingston links to a post at the Wireless Broadband Alliance written by Sean McGrath. While extolling the virtues of Wi-Fi roaming, he is not shy about highlighting the challenges. Many complex heterogeneous networks built by vendors and service providers who compete with each other must be reengineered, or perhaps a middleware-type level thrown in between the networks and the users, to enable roaming. This is an international effort, as evidenced by the companies supporting the effort. Those organizations include Intel, AT&T, Orange, CableLabs, Cisco and several others.
This very much is a work in progress. Indeed, the work seems nearer the starting gun than the finish line. Ben Rossi at Information Age suggests how early in the game of integrating hotspots into the roaming tool chest the industry is:
Enterprises with business travelers need to think seriously about how they can provide these mobile workers with Wi-Fi 2.0-like connectivity. There are a few ways to do this, such as approaching one of the few mobile carriers which bundles Wi-Fi into data roaming plans. However, this may not necessarily give the extensive worldwide access that business travellers need.
After the technology, which will be part of Hotspot 2.0, is settled, the industry—albeit, other players within it—must tackle a whole array of new roaming agreements. That challenge may be no easier than figuring out how to make the core technology work. The goal of an interconnected worldwide network in which users shift between carriers and their Wi-Fi and cellular networks without re-authenticating or even being aware of the switch, is laudable.