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BLOG: It’s all about u

Louis Au | Oct. 5, 2011
802.11u promises wi-fi users a cellular-like experience

Why can't connecting to a wi-fi network be as easy as connecting to a cellular network?  

It's not uncommon for someone living in a major city to discover tens if not hundreds of wi-fi networks with their smartphone or laptop. But how does the device select the right network?  Often the user's device doesn't recognise available wi-fi networks (SSIDs) or know if they have the proper security credential to even connect. 

Also unknown is whether Internet access is provided through a given SSID or whether e-mail or other services the user desires will function properly. And for many, selecting a wi-fi network ­- simply having to fiddle with the phone to enter credentials, encryption keys, and everything else - just isn't worth it.  But soon it will be much easier if the IEEE, Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA) and Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) have anything to say about it.

A little-known protocol extension from the IEEE, 802.11u, stands to have a huge impact on the user experience of emerging mobile wi-fi networks being built by operators. The key for widespread adoption of 802.11u ultimately rests in the hands of the Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA) and its industry certification process as part of Hotspot 2.0 as well as the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) and its Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) interoperability programme.

Who's Doing What?

Driven largely by vendors as well as network operators, Hotspot 2.0 is an industry initiative that uses 802.11u to create standards-based automatic wi-fi authentication and handoff. This allows a seamless handoff between cellular and wi-fi networks - letting mobile handset users roam between the two networks without the need for additional authentication. 

While Hotspot 2.0 uses 802.11u as a fundamental building block, it extends beyond the 802.11u protocol to effectively automate the network discovery, registration, provisioning and access steps a wi-fi user must manually go through today when connecting to a given hotspot.

A companion initiative to Hotspot 2.0 is the Next Generation Hotspot programme developed by the WBA. Unlike the WFA that is primarily focused on vendor certification, the WBA is a collection of network operators interested primarily in interoperability. The WBA's Next Generation Hotspot programme defines interoperability requirements for hotspot, cable, and 3G/4G mobile operators. The programme includes development of comprehensive operator guidelines and an ecosystem trial to facilitate migration to Next Generation Hotspots.

Given the explosion of data traffic on cellular networks and desire for operators to offload this traffic onto wi-fi networks, Hotspot 2.0 and NGH are widely viewed as critical components to accelerating the adoption of wi-fi as a complementary technology to high-mobility broadband wireless options.

And it couldn't come at a better time. The number of wi-fi hotspots are expected to triple by 2015 with some 1.2 million venues wi-fi ready, according to a recent hotspot report by In-Stat. It's anticipated that usage will follow suit, increasing to four billion connections in 2010 to 120 billion by 2015. It's these connections and streamlining the connection process where 802.11u comes to save the day.


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