People with no concept of how their phone works, or what 2G, 3G, or 4G network it is using, will spend endless time twiddling with their device to try to find a Wi-Fi hotspot and manually attach to it, with no guarantee of any quality of service whatsoever. And nearly always the assumption is that it will be free. The industry has done an extraordinary job of teaching consumers to look out for these Wi-Fi networks, and use them at the expense of traffic on “traditional” networks, whenever possible. It is not clear this model is to anyone’s benefit. And despite the difficulty in retraining the population to new habits, there is evidence things are about to change.
The real trouble is there are many different types of Wi-Fi networks, and not all of them work the same way. There is Wi-Fi in the home network, whereby a user attaches to one’s landline broadband network when one is using service in the home. This is fairly straightforward, at least in those circumstances where one can assume that one’s landline network has more capacity available than other available networks. Things are less certain when one leaves the home. Wi-Fi networks abound in cafes, airports, train stations, hotels, conferences, and other public places. More often than not, the process to find and attach to these networks involves manual intervention, and ultimately may not achieve the desired level of service or security. Why are things so difficult when Wi-Fi is intended to enable mobility, albeit using unlicensed spectrum?
And now, Wi-Fi is showing up in new forms that further complicate its role with respect to mobility services. Major operators are announcing Voice over Wi-Fi, but are less clear on their goals. At the same time, Apple is enabling Wi-Fi calling with their devices, even as they also work to enable a “soft SIM card” allowing users to choose a cellular service provider and automatically authenticate to multiple mobility networks. In these examples, when is Wi-Fi better? Is it somehow always better when it is “free”? How is a user to know what network to use under what conditions, given the real complexities involved and the dynamic state of mobile networks?
These problems become magnified when international roaming is thrown into the equation. With the new announcement of powerhouses Comcast and Liberty Global signing a deal to enable international Wi-Fi network use by their customers, there is hope that operators are putting the most basic steps in place to enable a user to worry less about the manual labor centered on network attachment, and focus more on using the service. But international agreements alone won’t help a user find the right hotspot. So, let’s come back to the question: what is needed to make Wi-Fi a usable service comparable to cellular with seamless mobility?
Wi-Fi service quality has suffered in several ways by comparison with traditional cellular network services. The first problem is that Wi-Fi usage often involves manual steps to find and authenticate new networks. For mobile users in particular, this is a problem, since new networks are frequently encountered. A user has no way of trusting whether the network discovered will deliver high bandwidth, adequate security, or even work at all. The second problem is that more than ever before, the public areas where one wants to use the service abound with networks of all kinds. How is one to prioritize one network over another, and indeed to make a choice not only about when to use a certain Wi-Fi network or another, but even to decide to use Wi-Fi at all versus alternatives that may be available, such as 2G, 3G, or 4G networks to which a device may attach as an alternative?
Different standards bodies and organizations have been working on these problems, with the aim of having Wi-Fi work more like a traditional mobile service. With Hotspot 2.0, devices and hotspots supporting the technology enable automatic attachment to operator approved hotspots without the need for manual intervention. Automatic authentication solves one problem, but most of the time one still has the challenge of identifying and prioritizing the right hotspot, or even the right network to use, at any moment in time. The Access Network Discovery and Selection Function (ANDSF) enables prioritization of Wi-Fi networks under dynamic conditions, such as coordinating attachment to one network versus another when bandwidth is better, or network congestion is occurring on one of the networks considered.
Together, Hotspot 2.0 and ANDSF provide technologies that enable operators to build upon to achieve seamless mobility for Wi-Fi services. With Network Selection Intelligence solutions, including the market leading one from Openet, Wi-Fi may yet be made a more seamless service experience. Let’s be clear: people absolutely love Wi-Fi. When asked, they crow about it, citing “free” and “ubiquitous” service as their primary reasons. Cellular mobility, in comparison, is expensive and suffers from bandwidth scarcity. And yet, cellular mobility with its built-in radio resource management “just works”, in ways that Wi-Fi does not. At least not yet. With the movement by operators, including Republic Wireless and Scratch Wireless, towards “Wi-Fi First” models, and international agreements such as the one cited above, operators are advancing commercial and technical capabilities that are evolving Wi-Fi from a hobbyist platform into a mature service.
When one can take a device around the world, and it can intelligently discover and attach to the best network, and reattach to a better network when conditions change – then we will know that Wi-Fi is working as best it can, harnessing cheaper, more available network spectrum to deliver the high quality service experience we’ve learned to love and demand.