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Have Operators Finally Accepted Wi-Fi Roaming?

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

If mobile operators get enough benefits from the deal, their customers might get easy access to Wi-Fi, says Peter Judge

Canny smartphone users have been cutting their data bills for some time by using Wi-Fi whenever they can get hold of it. Now, the mobile operators’ club, the GSMA is stepping in to join the party. But will it be a good or a bad thing?

This week, the GSMA has signed up to Next Generation Hotspot. The NGH initiative has sound technology which been demonstrated, but since its whole purpose is to ease roaming from mobile networks to Wi-Fi, wasn’t going anywhere till the operators came on board.

Why would operators go for it?

At first sight, there is no obvious reason why mobile operators would accept NGH. If users can easily slide off to Wi-Fi networks, won’t that mean saying goodbye to lots of revenue?

Well, not exactly, as Dan Warren of the GSMA (pictured) told me, it is obvious that plenty of users know how to get their smartphones onto Wi-Fi. In doing so, they may be depriving the operators of data revenue, but they are also offloading data from the networks.

Also, since Wi-Fi use happens indoors where mobile signals are worse, people using Wi-Fi also have a better time, which may make them happier customers.

The mobile operators, whose own standard group the 3GPP did try to initiate an operator-controlled way to tie Wi-Fi into mobile network back in 2003, are now happy to adopt a similar standard which has come from the Wi-Fi world.

After all, the standard only has to do certain things: authenticate the user, preferably by SIM, and allow a mechanism for billing.

Today’s agreement means the technology foundations are there. In another nine months or so when the standard is done, mobile operators and their Wi-Fi counterparts, can start to haggle over how much money Orange or Vodafone can collect when a user connects to an OpenZone hotspot, and how much of it to pass back to OpenZone.

The downside – paying for it

At the moment, you may have to struggle to get connected, entering passwords on a tiny device that is not designed for it, and then re-entering them at different sites, but at least you are in control. In future, when you enter a hotspot that has a deal with your operator, your phone will proactively move over to the hotspot, with or without a prompt to you.

The details of this will have to be set up carefully, so you don’t move to pricier data without a warning. And regulators will have to be convinced that operators are giving users a decent level of control, information and value for money.

Once all that is worked out, the overall result will be good. Wi-Fi coverage is better indoors, and fundamentally cheaper, and users are angry about high roaming charges.

Even with the level of cussedness they have shown in the past, the operators cannot move in any direction here except towards cheaper and better services.

It will take another 18 months, but this really will be a fundamental improvement in mobile data.

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