Wi-Fi networks may soon become easier and safer to join

BARCELONA—The way we use Wi-Fi now may be in for a big change in the next few years, and your cellular provider might be much more involved.

People connect their devices to Wi-Fi networks a lot these days, but an Informa study says we rarely connect with Wi-Fi service provided by big wireless companies like AT&T and Verizon. More likely, we connect with the hotspot deployed by our local coffee shop owner.

A couple of Wi-Fi consortiums I talked to here are working to make it far easier for us to connect our mobile devices with Wi-Fi hotspots owned by our service provider.

The Wireless Broadband Alliance is a group of carriers that's working with Wi-Fi hotspot makers like Cisco to build a new kind of hotspot that can recognize users and log them into a wireless provider-operated Wi-Fi network automatically. The new hotspots feature similar levels of security to the cellular network including end-to-end radio link encryption and SIM authentication. The concept, known as Next Generation Hotspot, is being trialed by some 50 wireless providers worldwide, including the big ones in the US.

Another organization called the Wi-Fi Alliance has grouped together a large number of phone and tablet makers to work on the problem from the device side. In this initiative, called Passpoint, member device makers are putting a piece of software inside their devices that will recognize next generation hotspots and automatically connect with them. The group put out a video that helps explain the concept:

This might be a good thing, because right now locating and logging into secure Wi-Fi networks can be a pain. You might come within the range of five different Wi-Fi networks in one day, and you’ll need five different passwords to access them—that is, if you can pick them out from the long list of available networks that show up on your device. Once you’ve logged into one, you have to worry about whether they’re secure, or if someone somewhere is logging your keystrokes.

The ideal scenario is for your phone or tablet to automatically, securely, and seamlessly switch from your cellular service to an approved Wi-Fi network operated by your cell phone provider. Even if you’re in the middle of streaming a video or talking on Skype, the switch from cellular to Wi-Fi would be made with no interruption.

Mobile carriers are getting behind the Next Generation Hotspot and Passpoint initiatives because they want to keep you on their network, whether that’s a cell network or a Wi-Fi one.

And your wireless service provider might be able to guarantee a level of speed and security in its Wi-Fi service that your local coffee shop owner/Wi-Fi provider cannot.

It also benefits the wireless provider because it reduces the load on its cellular network, which can struggle to pump out enough broadband to keep up with demand.

The problem is, you can’t always find a Wi-Fi hotspot operated by your carrier. The operators, led by AT&T, have only recently tried to build out their networks of Wi-Fi hotspots. Today, you can probably find them in crowded urban places (like Union Square in San Francisco or Times Square in New York), or in stadiums and airports, but you might not be able to find one in your neighborhood. AT&T reports that more than 2.7 billion Wi-Fi connections were made to the AT&T Wi-Fi network in 2012, more evidence that carriers are getting serious about building out Wi-Fi networks.

The good news is that wireless providers are working together to let you roam onto each other’s Wi-Fi hotspots, so you wouldn’t have to rely on just your operator’s hotspots for coverage. Whether or not you will incur Wi-Fi roaming charges is another matter, and something you should watchout for.

But the analysts I spoke to here said they believe a "landgrab" is going on, with wireless carriers trying to buy the rights to install their Wi-Fi hotspots wherever possible. The Wi-Fi Alliance and the Wireless Broadband Alliance believe this will happen quickly, and that the new, streamlined way of connecting to Wi-Fi they envision will become widespread in the next year or so.

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