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Mobile biz bigwigs crack heads over Wi-Fi roaming charges

The tech was trivial, now paying for it gets tough

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The Wireless Broadband Alliance has joined forces with mobile operator clique GSMA to put the most important part of Wi-Fi roaming in place: ensuring that everyone gets billed properly.

Last month the alliance demonstrated how a telco could authenticate a customer roaming onto its Wi-Fi network using credentials stored in the SIM card and without the punter being aware of the transition. This was achieved by using Hotspot 2 technology, which allows a mobile handset (or tablet, or anything else) to automatically detect, connect to and register with a Wi-Fi base station.

Hotspot 2 hardware is now available from a handful of vendors. However, getting this gear to work is trivial compared to working out who should be paying whom for what, and this is where the GSMA comes in.

The GSMA is an old hand at such things, although not as old as the ITU which has been arranging interconnection meetings between fixed operators since 1865. The GSMA's "GPRS Roaming Exchange" (GRX) is a stack of documents describing the technical interfaces between companies' systems, and templates of roaming agreements to speed negotiations (and set expectations).

Updating that to include Wi-Fi roaming shouldn't be terribly difficult, although the GSMA admits it will take a year to put all the pieces into place. Even then customers may find that wandering onto Wi-Fi isn't quite as fulfilling as traditional roaming when it comes to advanced operator services.

That's because cellular roaming always routes traffic back to the home operator. One might be connected to the internet via AT&T in New York, but as a Vodafone UK customer all your data packets are crossing the pond into Vodafone's internal network before emerging into the public internet.

That's important because it means Vodafone can trust your identity, so access to billing details can be allowed, and online purchases authorised, without having to enter passwords or usernames. But Wi-Fi roaming doesn't work that way; once the authentication is done the traffic will all be local and customers won't have access to the same facilities, which isn't a big deal right now but could get more important if the operators get their way.

The Wholesale Applications Community, in its new guise as a backend billing enabler, is well aware of this problem, and has been trying to create out some sort of selective-connection API.

That would allow an application to specify the carrier for a connection even if alternatives exist - so one could request the handset establish a cellular connection just to authenticate a secure transaction, even if the mobile is already connected to a Wi-Fi network.

That's getting increasingly complicated, and it's more likely that carriers will continue to see their premium-service revenue siphoned away by Apple and Google who are able to authenticate customers regardless of how they're connected to the internet.

But for most of us this is good news. Local Wi-Fi should be cheaper than the today's exorbitant data roaming rates, and even if one never uses a Wi-Fi connection the competitive pressure should make roaming cheaper for all. ®

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