Tight Mobile/Wi-Fi Integration Ready for Rollouts Worldwide

Chris Bruce, chair, Wireless Broadband Alliance

Chris Bruce, chair, Wireless Broadband Alliance

February 28, 2012 – The accelerating pace of advances enabling robust use of Wi-Fi as a metro-wide, mobile-enabled complement to 3G and 4G cellular is making cable operators’ decisions to focus on Wi-Fi rather than pursue cellular infrastructure deployments look smarter by the day.
One of the major steps in this direction has been service provider and vendor cooperation on the Next-Generation Hotspot (NFH) initiative spearheaded by the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), a service provider-focused organization, which is based in part on the Hotspot 2.0 protocol developed by the vendors’ Wi-Fi Alliance. In late February Cisco Systems became the first vendor to claim support for NGH on a carrier-grade end-to-end Wi-Fi infrastructure, which means some 12 million access points using Cisco gear worldwide can be upgraded to support seamless connectivity between mobile and Wi-Fi networks with high levels of security and automatic authentication of users with no need to sign in on the Wi-Fi segment.

Cisco’s announcement came on the heels of an announcement from the WBA attesting to successful completion of a round of interoperability testing on NGH by some of the world’s largest carriers, including AT&T, BT, China Mobile, DOCOMO InterTouch, NTT DOCOMO, Orange, PCCW Mobile, Portugal Telecom, Smart Communications, Swisscom, TeliaSonera and True Corp. Suppliers engaged in the tests were Accuris Networks, Aruba Networks, BelAir Networks, Cisco and Ruckus Wireless from the supplier community.

Such testing is a key step toward defining all the specifications for certification of infrastructure components and end user devices in a Wi-Fi Alliance certification program slated to begin in midyear. “The complementary relationship between Wi-Fi and mobile networks is finally becoming a reality,” says WBA chair Chris Bruce.

“Next Generation Hotspots allow smartphones and tablets to automatically roam from the cellular network on to Wi-Fi hotspots, thereby augmenting the coverage and capacity of both,” Bruce says. “What has made this trial so unique is that the key players from both the mobile operator community and the Wi-Fi ecosystem have actively come together and supported each other for this industry-wide program.”

The technology is ideal for arrangements such as Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications and Bright House Networks are working out with Verizon, where mobile users served by both Verizon Wireless and a cable company may eventually be transferred onto the Wi-Fi grid whenever they’re in proximity to cable-operated hotspots (see December, p. 1). The new hotspot standard features the types of security used in cellular networks, including end-to-end radio link encryption and SIM (Subscriber Identity Module). The specifications provide a consistent set of interfaces and an automated association process known as Passpoint for selecting and authorizing connectivity to a subscriber-affiliated network.

Cable operators are moving rapidly to build out their Wi-Fi metro footprints employing the new “small-cell” multi-access systems from suppliers, which is another big advance in the evolving Wi-Fi scenario. For example, in the most recent update on such activity, Florida newspapers report Bright House, using platforms supplied by BelAir and Cisco, is deploying some 5,000 Wi-Fi hotspots statewide this year concentrated in cities it serves such as Daytona Beach and Orlando, typically with coverage of 300-500 feet per access point extending contiguously through public gathering areas.

The emergence of small-cell multi-access technology is a game changer when it comes to how Wi-Fi will be leveraged from here on out, notes Peter Jarich, service director with Current Analysis. Citing Cisco’s newly introduced small-cell solution as a case in point, Jarich says
“Cisco’s end-to-end, holistic approach to mobile networking will allow operators to deliver seamless experiences across heterogeneous access networks and save on capital and operational costs.”

Small cell technology, which applies to microcells, picocells and femtocells that progressively subdivide traditional cell coverage areas, combines licensed radio low-powered indoor/outdoor base stations with limited range and unlicensed carrier-grade Wi-Fi technologies to create an integrated network offering. Coordination of such access points across entire metro regions requires sophisticated operations systems that partners can share to optimize performance on behalf of all participants.

“Tomorrow’s mobile Internet must span multiple networks and deliver seamless and highly secure mobile experiences,” says Cisco chairman and CEO John Chambers. “This requires an architectural approach powered by a cloud-intelligent network of networks.”

Not to be outdone, BelAir, having launched its GigXone small cell wireless system last fall, is in the thick of NGH development with auto-authentication based on EAP (Extensible Authentication Protocol), SIM and AKA (Authentication and Key Agreement). In February BelAir added enhancements to GigXone that support tighter integration with existing mobile and fixed service provider access and core networks.

The enhancements also speed up and simplify the deployment and management of tens of thousands of network access points and add advanced buffering and other processes that optimize performance with video-based applications and services, says BelAir’s president and CEO Bernard Herscovich. “Our customers are asking for integration and scalability features to help speed the deployment of Wi-Fi to help make the existing service provider networks better for their customers,” Herscovich says.