A key to the remarkable success of cellular during the past 20 years is the ability of subscribers to roam freely without having to re-authenticate and log in whenever they switch networks. Indeed, if this wasn’t assumed, it is likely that cellular communication would be far less successful than it has been to date.
The Wi-Fi sector is working hard to replicate that capability, but it’s not quite there yet. A traveler, for instance, moving between her home, an airport, a plane, a convention center and, finally, a hotel room could have to log in five or six times.
People tend to go with the flow because that has always been the case with Wi-Fi, and the ability to check email and enjoy the other benefits of connectivity outweighs the inconvenience. But the inconsistency in roaming is a challenge the industry has been working on for years.
Last week, the Wireless Broadband Alliance announced the launch of the City WiFi Roaming project in conjunction with World Wi-Fi Day. The project enables people in New York City, San Francisco, San Jose and Singapore to “automatically and securely roam” between public Wi-Fi networks. The project apparently was running before the announcement, since the demonstration is set for August and September.
The press release spells out the technical details on the demonstration. It is utilizing Next Generation Hotspot Passpoint Technology, which is based on Hotspot 2.0 specifications. More than 1,000 hotspots across the four cities are participating.
The Wi-Fi industry has worked to make things easier for subscribers. For instance, Wi-Fi offerings from Bright House, Cox, Optimum (associated with Cablevision), Time Warner Cable and Xfinity (owned by Comcast) allow roaming between networks. This doesn’t necessarily help roaming between one of the cable companies’ networks and an office building network. It does, however, simplify moving between each of the MSOs’ territories.
Another deal in the cable/Wi-Fi space was announced earlier this month. Mid-tier cable operator Midco said that it has agreed to use Kyrio to enable its subscribers to roam onto and off networks operated by other cable operators. Kyrio is a subsidiary of industry consortium CableLabs. FieceCable didn’t identify other cable operators involved, but Kyrio’s website listed several MSOs with which it has relationships.
Private companies are also working on the roaming issue. In the UK, for instance, Chiltern Railways late last month said that it is launching seamless Wi-Fi. Passengers at 28 stations from London to Birmingham can sign onto Wi-Fi provided by Icomera. As the train enters a station, the signal is temporarily handed over to stationary equipment. This, the Railway Gazette says, optimizes connectivity. The train reestablishes control when the train moves out. The process is invisible to the user.
Cellular service, at least until the advent of small cells, features broad coverage areas. Roaming arrangements are routine. Wi-Fi is a quilt of coverage featuring municipal and public networks and corporate wireless local-area networks (WLANs). Bringing sense to how they mesh and making it simple for users to move from one to the other is an important long-term goal.
Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at [email protected] and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.