Wi-Fi is moving closer to becoming more like a 3G or 4G network thanks to improvements in secure seamless roaming, according to the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) and Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA).
At a roundtable meeting at the end of June the WBA showcased the technology required to provide secure seamless connectivity for mobile users when roaming from cellular onto Wi-Fi. The WBA refers to the project as ‘Hotspots 2’, while the WFA calls it ‘Next Generation Hotspots’.
Stephen Rayment (pictured), CTO of Wi-Fi equipment manufacturer BelAir, who was present at the roundtable, told Wireless: ‘One of the problems mobile carriers have with Wi-Fi is the lack of security. Users can currently automatically connect to Wi-Fi, but the air link is not secure when you log on to a BT Open Zone access point, for example. The call can be intercepted. The Hotspots 2 project is designed to solve this issue.’
The solution is to use the mobile operators’ subscriber authentication credentials to authenticate the Wi-Fi too. The EAP (extensible authentication protocol) housed in the user’s mobile phone Sim card will be used by operators to authenticate the Wi-Fi network as well. This means integrating the Wi-Fi authentication into the mobile network’s 3G (or 4G) AAA (authentication, authorisation, and accounting) and network security systems.
‘The important point to make here is that if secure seamless roaming on Wi-Fi is to become widespread then it needs to embrace set standards that enable a multiplicity of handsets to be used. The more handsets that can be patched into seamless Wi-Fi and 3G/4G roaming, the bigger the ecosystem,’ said Rayment.
The standards have been written, but the Wi-Fi Alliance now needs to test the products against the standard. Testing begins in September and secure seamless Wi-Fi-enabled handsets should be available by June or July 2012. Manufacturers will need to incorporate the new Wi-Fi standard into their devices, but this is a software rather than a hardware task. The WBA is to undertake some pilot studies with carriers to familiarise them with the benefits Hotspot 2 will bring.
Once secure seamless roaming is established, users will be automatically and securely connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot using the same EAP credentials on the user’s mobile carrier Sim card.
For the carriers there are two advantages. Firstly, by enabling seamless roaming onto Wi-Fi they are providing a better and more secure roaming service to their users when their cellular connection is poor or unavailable. Secondly, it helps move high capacity data traffic off the carriers’ core network, making them less clogged up and easier to manage. Rayment suggests that Wi-Fi may even be a more cost-effective roaming solution than 3G for handling data.