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Automatic Wi-Fi roam, signup and billing via SIM card to be tested

Like cellular data but without the cell network

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Thirty-seven communications companies around the world have signed up to trial Hotspot 2 Wi-Fi roaming – and billing – using commercially available routers later this year, it has been announced. Hotspot 2 tech allows a mobile handset (or tablet, or ereader) to automatically detect, connect to and register with a Wi-Fi base station. But while Hotspot 2 has the potential to be more disruptive than Wi-Fi was, the disruption may already have started.

The trials are being run by the Wireless Broadband Alliance and based around Next Generation Hotspots (NGH) which are capable of authenticating users via the SIM (in a smartphone) or stored credentials (for laptops and tablets), ensuring instant connectivity without having to muck about with usernames or passwords. The alliance has just announced that further trials will take place in Q4 this year, following earlier tests in Q1. This second round of trials follows on from the proof-of-technology and will test remote authentication techniques allowing networks who don't even have networks to offer network connectivity.

Which is why companies such as TalkTalk are among those involved. While networks like Telefonica and Orange are interested in reducing the burden on their cellular infrastructure, TalkTalk is a virtual operator which pays Vodafone to carry its 70,000 or so customers, so assuming favourable deals can be struck with Wi-Fi operators, then there will be an immediate financial return for the firm. Many of TalkTalk's customers aren't using data right now – within a handset subsidy there are few smartphones – but that will change as the technology trickles down.

It's not just TalkTalk either: joining the impressive roster of mobile operators are BT, BSkyB, Boingo, Oi Wi-Fi, Time Warner Cable and Skype among others – all companies who'd like to offer billable connectivity to their customers without being reliant on the cellular networks.

Hotspot 2 kit lets a device negotiate a connection without involving the user, so one's handset can link up to a Wi-Fi location automatically, just as it does to a cellular connection today. The link is verified by one's home network, which bills by time/data/flat fee as specified in one's contract (most likely a flat fee, but other options exist). Once the connection has been established, the data is routed locally onto the public internet, in contrast to cellular data connections which are always routed back to the home network before emerging into the raw internet.

Authentication

The connections and data routing have already been demonstrated, and the GMSA has been drafted in to help the companies involved negotiate roaming agreements, so this round of trials is testing the remote authentication and sign-on procedure for when one comes to a router owned by a company with whom one's own network has no roaming agreement.

The GSM standard uses a shared, secret, key unique to each user with one copy no the SIM and one within the home network. The home network uses the key to encrypt a random number and sends the encrypted package to the handset, the customer's SIM decrypts the random and sends it back as verified credentials. When one attaches to a roaming network, the home network generates a sequence of random/encrypted pairs and sends them to the roamed-to network, allowing that network to authenticate the user without having access to the secret key; that's critical as one might roam to a network, but still not trust those running that network.

In Wi-Fi that's even more true, so authentication between networks has to follow similar procedures (more-or-less the same when the SIM is available), and it's that aspect which these new trials will be testing.

But some operators, and operating companies, aren't waiting for lengthy trials and new routers to get their customers onto Wi-Fi. Devicescape offers software which uses a series of bodges to achieve much the same user experience without needing new routers or networks, piggybacking on the free Wi-Fi already offered in numerous public spaces. Intel recently said Devicescape's tech would be incorporated into Ultrabooks and Bouygues Telecom has launched an Android app (B-WiFi) which uses Devicescape to connect customer handsets to Wi-Fi wherever it's available.

Devicescape's solution isn't as operator-friendly, and it's notable that Devicescape is also taking part in the Hotspot 2 trials that could end up making them redundant, but Hotspot 2 will take a long time to deploy even with the backing of so many big names and in the meantime those who want sign-in-free connectivity aren't waiting. ®

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