Feature Article

May 31, 2012

Next-generation Hotspots Coming Soon, Cellular Offload is the End Game

Network operators will soon be deploying Wi-Fi hotspots supporting automatic log-in of authorized users based on the next-generation hotspot (NGH) standard. That’s a move that should eventually pave the way for automatic offload from cellular networks – a capability that’s likely to be highly popular among mobile operators seeking to minimize data traffic on their cellular networks and among end users seeking to avoid overage charges.

“The core of NGH is bringing the cellular experience to Wi-Fi,” said Tiago Rodrigues, program director at Wireless Broadband Alliance, in an interview. WBA is an international organization of network operators and equipment manufacturers that spearheaded the NGH initiative.

As Rodrigues explained, NGH requires software at the hotspot and on any smartphones that want to use NGH capabilities. In some cases, new hardware also may be required. Equipment supporting the new standard is expected to be available soon.

The NGH software in the smartphone will be able to identify which hotspots in an area are operated by carriers that have roaming agreements with the user’s carrier. Using extensible authentication protocol, the user’s device will send the user’s credentials to the user’s carrier, which will automatically authenticate the user so that the user can be automatically connected to the hotspot.

Inter-carrier billing is not the responsibility of the NGH software. But when asked whether one carrier might keep track of the amount of traffic handled for each of its roaming partners and then bill for any imbalance, Rodrigues said some carriers are likely to use that approach.

Rodrigues declined to name which network operators are planning to deploy NGH. But a good guess would be that they include some of the companies that participated in an NGH trial earlier this year – including AT&T, BT, China Mobile, DOCOMO InterTouch, NTT DOCOMO, Orange, PCCW Mobile, Portugal Telecom, Smart Communications, Swisscom, TeliaSonera and True Corp.

This year, WBA participants will be testing the next version of the NGH software, which aims to enable traffic to automatically shift back and forth between Wi-Fi and cellular networks, Rodrigues said.

“If I take the blind approach of moving all traffic to Wi-Fi, suddenly the Wi-Fi network will have the problems that the 3G network has,” commented Rodrigues. A key goal of the testing, he said, will be to identify the policy and mechanical operations that NGH should follow in deciding when to shift traffic from 3G to Wi-Fi and vice-versa.

It’s worth noting that NGH is not the only initiative addressing carrier Wi-Fi roaming. The Wi-Fi Alliance’s Passpoint initiative shares many of the same goals. And according to industry message boards, Passpoint is a key underpinning of CableWiFi, an offering announced recently by several U.S. cable companies that allows broadband customers of one cable company to use Wi-Fi hotspots operated by another cable company at no charge.

Edited by Brooke Neuman

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