Wi-Fi networks are moving closer to becoming an extension of mobile networks through standards work that will add elements such as security, authentication and automatic roaming. The development could be a boon for public-safety LTE operators that will have limited footprints at the onset.

Last week, the Wi-Fi Alliance and the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), which represents cable companies wanting to deploy service-provider grade Wi-Fi networks, joined forces to tackle Wi-Fi hotspot roaming and authentication.

The WBA's inter-operator Wi-Fi roaming efforts and the Wi-Fi Alliance's planned certification program for Wi-Fi equipment now will be combined and developed jointly by the two groups.

The Wi-Fi Alliance has been working on a Wi-Fi Certified hotspot program, otherwise known as Hotspot 2.0, to ensure that Wi-Fi devices easily can connect to hotspots in a security-protected, interoperable manner. This will be accomplished by defining technologies and certification requirements for both Wi-Fi infrastructure devices, as well as endpoints such handsets, tablets and notebooks. The alliance plans to introduce the certification program in the middle of 2012.

Meanwhile, the WBA has been developing a next-generation hotspot program that defines interoperability requirements for hotspot, 3G and 4G operators. The two groups now will coordinate their testing efforts.

The alliance was born out of the fact that mobile operators have been deluged with data traffic, and they are looking to offload that traffic onto Wi-Fi hotspots. But they want the same security and roaming features on those Wi-Fi hotspots as they get on their mobile networks.

The groups are using existing IEEE standards to make Wi-Fi more carrier-grade, said Stephen Rayment, chief technology officer of Wi-Fi vendor BelAir Networks.

“The goal is to make connecting to Wi-Fi [on smartphones] as painless as connecting to a mobile network,” Rayment said. “Session mobility is very important. When you move from a mobile network to a Wi-Fi access point, you connection shouldn’t drop.”

Rayment said that mobile carriers are expected to conduct trials later this year with mass deployments of Hotspot 2.0 coming next summer. Many of the high-grade Wi-Fi access points will be able to upgrade to Hotspot 2.0 via a software upgrade. The trickier piece will be in the handset, Rayment said. Devices need to come to market with a protocol called access network query protocol (ANQP), which enables the device to determine the Wi-Fi networks to which a device can roam. Rayment said that device vendors are on board with the protocol, but it will take some time to promulgate into the device market.

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