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Wi-Fi Alliance’s Passpoint Strives for Better Mobile Wi-Fi Access

Smartphone and tablet users who are looking for reliable, fast mobile Wi-Fi will soon have a new option for connecting to the web on the go.

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The Wi-Fi Alliance, a global nonprofit industry association working toward greater wireless Internet access, announced that it is launching a new initiative this summer called the Passpoint program, which aims to make it easier for users to connect from a mobile network to public Wi-Fi hotspots. Wi-Fi hotspots have become increasingly common in public spaces, and Informa Telecoms & Media predicts that there will be 5.8 million hotspots worldwide by 2015. The Wi-Fi Alliance’s Passpoint program will make logging onto Wi-Fi networks a more seamless user experience by eliminating the need for a browser-based sign-in form or password entry.

The mobile Wi-Fi program will allow:

  • Devices to discover and identify Passpoint networks without any action from the user
  • Users to access networks without manually logging in by using Extensible Authentication Protocols (EAP) based on a device’s SIM card, a user name and password or installed security certificate.
  • Devices to log on through a secure WPA2 connection, which offers a security level similar to cellular networks

The Wi-Fi Alliance has created a liaison agreement with the Wireless Broadband Association (WBA) to allow the organizations to share information and collaborate. Nigel Bird, Project Leader, WBA Next Generation Hotspot Operator Guidelines said:

Improving customer experience is the main driver for the adoption of Passpoint for mobile operators. They want to replicate the cellular network experience that their subscribers have with their phones when they use Wi-Fi, so their users go to a hotspot and it just works – no need to do anything. This will allow hotspots to provide a more reliable and user-friendly service. SIM-based authentication is crucial for mobile operators to enable seamless connectivity, as well as enhance security at Wi-Fi hotspots.

The Wi-Fi Alliance claims that a majority of US smartphone and tablet users will welcome the Passpoint program, based on a recent study it conducted. Out of 1,000 US-based tablet and smartphone owners:

  • 87 percent want greater mobile Wi-Fi availability on their device
  • 85 percent prefer Wi-Fi over their carrier’s data service
  • 83 percent would use their mobile devices more if Wi-Fi were more accessible
  • 70 percent would switch carriers for a feature like Passpoint
  • 90 percent would stay with their current carrier if they had access to Passpoint

Chris Valazco, wrote in a recent TechCrunch article that Passpoint could be a win-win situation for both mobile users and carriers:

The idea of a Wi-Fi network allowing access because of a device’s SIM card is not only thoughtful, it also helps to blur the line between that Wi-Fi connection and the carrier’s own wireless data network. Assuming the hand-off works without a hitch, users get a better data experience without having to do anything, although plenty of the specifics (how users are billed, when carrier partners will implement Passpoint, etc.) are still up in the air.

Of course, the carriers get something out of this too. The more users they’re able to offload onto their privately-owned or authorized Wi-Fi hotspots means they’ll be able to ease the strain on their own wireless data networks.

Ian Paul, a PC World writer, pointed out that US mobile carriers have not yet embraced the Passpoint program:

Passpoint’s rollout comes at a time when most major U.S. mobile carriers offer monthly bandwidth caps instead of unlimited data plans. Currently, Sprint is the only American carrier to offer users unlimited Internet access. AT&T and Verizon, meanwhile, have since backed off on their unlimited bandwidth offerings in recent months. So Internet junkies desperate to watch live baseball games online, download mobile apps, or stream Spotify tracks may welcome the feature. Carriers, however, aren’t tripping over each other to announce Passpoint adoption. So far, only T-Mobile has plans toadopt Passpoint, according to Computerworld. It’s not clear whether other hotspot providers such as Boingo plan to support the automatic login feature.

The Passpoint program is scheduled to start its rollout this summer, with an additional set of features set to launch in early 2013.

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