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Smartphones eclipse laptops as top WiFi hogs

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Two out of five devices using public Wi-Fi networks are smartphones according to new figures. Laptops nipped in just below, accounting for 39 per cent of connected computers, tablets lag behind at 17 per cent, and the rest are unidentified.

The numbers come from the Wireless Broadband Alliance, which got them from biz research outfit Informa and is using them to push support for Passpoint: the next-generation authentication system allowing devices to identify themselves automatically, and mobile network operators to extend their connectivity into the 2.4GHz Wi-Fi band, which is probably why the Small Cell Forum has agreed to work with the alliance to integrate phone masts into hotspots.

It's the first time smartphones have outranked laptops in Wi-Fi usage, but this shouldn't be surprising given the way a phone is always looking out for connectivity while a laptop has to be powered up before it starts communicating - for the moment at least.

However, anyone connected to a hybrid mobile phone base station via Wi-Fi with a device that isn't otherwise on the mobile network presents problems for the base station's operator and the regulator, in the UK at least, when it comes to controlling access to stuff online.

So, for example, a cellular operator will block access to pornography until the customer has proved their age, but the same customer, on the same device, can switch to Wi-Fi and access all the flesh they desire from the Wi-Fi-enabled base station. More importantly, for the operator, Wi-Fi users can't be securely identified as customers for billing purposes, so they can't access their mobile phone account details and can't use PayForIt or other operator-billing mechanisms.

There are three ways to solve that, so the operators are enthusiastically endorsing all of them. The first is to stick phone masts in every Wi-Fi hotspot, and the aforementioned forum and alliance are now committed to working on that. The second is to find a way of identifying the user over the public Wi-Fi networks as enabled by Passpoint and next-generation hotspots being identified by the alliance. THe third is to create devices that will switch to cellular for secure authentication, which is a work in progress.

The third option is similar to what happens when one runs up Google Maps on an Android device. No matter how solid the Wi-Fi connectivity, the cellular data flashes up to enable the app to grab information about the local base station, which is then used to narrow down the location, but it's not a big jump to imagine a similar process authenticating a payment or ticket.

Handsets will seek out the quickest way to connect to the internet, whatever that may be, and these numbers show that's increasingly bypassing the network operator, which isn't going to disappear any time soon but needs to do more to avoid being relegated to filling in the gaps between hotspots. ®

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