Is the ‘open global roaming Wi-Fi federation’ no-fuss, no mess Wi-Fi login relief?

  • ...or just the telco model applied to a data network technology?
  • While it looks like Wi-Fi roaming will be a cheap alternative to cellular roaming  
  • It may, in fact, remain a service telcos can still charge for because - as everyone knows - roaming costs

The Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) is launching what it’s calling an open global roaming Wi-Fi federation standard and declares it’s open for business as of today. 

It claims the new standards and resulting federation will remove the need for roamers to search for Wi-Fi networks, to repeatedly enter or create login credentials, or to constantly reconnect or re-register to public Wi-Fi. Instead they will automatically (and securely) log in to a global network via participating Wi-Fi access networks and avoid the frustrating barriers that make hotel and venue Wi-Fi such a joy. 

All Wi-Fi organisations are welcome to join, according to WBA CEO, Tiago Rodrigues, from Wi-Fi-using venues, to device vendors and operator/identity providers.

Rodrigues said that Wi-Fi was already arguably the most successful wireless technology of our time, but with globally agreed standards and policies [for roaming], we can take public-guest Wi-Fi to another level. ”

 So how does it work and what’s the catch?

The WBA claims its OpenRoaming simplifies Wi-Fi and operates much like cellular roaming. Companies who join up can allow their end users to automatically connect on any Wi-Fi network managed by a federation member. Participating entities will range from enterprises to coffee shops, concert venues to connected cars:

“WBA OpenRoaming creates a world where Wi-Fi users move from one network to another without needing to constantly re-register or sign-in,” promises the WBA.

For some experienced Wi-Fi users this federated approach might remove  the challenge and sense of achievement experienced by successfully logging on to Wi-Fi from some  distant bar or hotel room. For the  rest of us, however, it probably feels about the right time for something to be done.

Whatever the case, it looks like there now is a solid movement building to finally get a coherent and open international Wi-Fi roaming system off the ground. The list of heavyweight participants is impressive and currently includes: Airmesh, Airties, Aprecomm, American Tower, Aptilo, AT&T, Boingo Wireless, Broadcom Inc, Cisco, Cityroam, Comcast, Commscope, Deutsche Telekom, Eduroam, Eleven Software, GlobalReachTechnology, Google,Hub One, Hughes Systique Corp, Intel Corporation, IT&E, m3connect, Nomosphere, Orange, Purple Wi-Fi, Samsung, Single Digits, Sun Global, Veniam, WifiCoin and Zephyrtel.

The technical underpinnings of the cloud federation consist of a global database of networks and identities; a dynamic Wi-Fi network discovery mechanism, and a core Wireless Roaming Intermediary Exchange (WRIX).  

Cyber security involves Public Key Infrastructure and RadSec, providing the certificate policy, management and brokerage services.

The service is essentially a network of roaming partners that all adhere to the OpenRoaming framework, says the WBA. Users may join any network managed by a federation member and the network automatically authenticates devices by using established identity providers, such as a service provider, device manufacturer, cloud ID or even loyalty memberships. 

WBA OpenRoaming bridges the gap between Wi-Fi and cellular networks and allows users to roam between Wi-Fi networks seamlessly and securely without the use of splash pages or sign-in screens.  

For users who are customers of these ‘identity providers’ this means they will simply automatically connect. It is based upon a set of industry standards including WBA’s Public Keying Infrastructure (PKI Radsec) for secure exchanges, Wireless Roaming Intermediary Exchange (WRiX), Wi-Fi Alliance’s Wi-Fi CERTIFIED Passpoint, amongst others, that provide enhanced security and enable the federation to scale quickly.

Any company that owns or manages a Wi-Fi network, whether an operator, city, enterprise or venue, can become a member and enable their customers to automatically authenticate and connect to other national or international Wi-Fi networks within the WBA roaming federation ecosystem – creating and enhancing business revenues and customer satisfaction, it’s claimed.   

So will it be free for users? Who pays?

Pricing will be down to each provider, says the WBA, which points out that the system can support all sorts of different business and commercial models, from settled/paid to settlement free. The key will be the WBA Wireless Roaming Intermediary eXchange  (WRIX) which will engineer interoperability along with settlement and billing. In reality this looks like the costs for many users could simply come out of any access fee they already pay to their Wi-Fi provider or telco, a proportion of which will be passed on to the other federation members as a good old-fashioned settlement.

So really - let’s be clear about this - it’s a telco model providing some extra security applied to a global data network (the intermet), which, by its very nature, doesn’t need to highlight 'roaming'. A properly functioning internet connection already enables roaming in that once logged in, a user can access all the services and applications they usually enjoy when 'at home'. 

In fact the agenda here is to enable credential-sharing and present it as if it were equivalent to conventional cellular roaming and charge for it accordingly. 

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