The Wi-Fi NOW event is organised and chaired by Claus Hetting, who recently split off from Hassan Claussen. Both organised WiFi events in Amsterdam this month and I attended this first one. Unlike some of the larger events driven by the WBA or global conference organisers, this attracted an eclectic mix of sponsors, exhibitors and presenters from across the Wi-Fi ecosystem. Venue Wi-Fi featured strongly with Carrier Wi-Fi/Passpoint represented. There was little about residential services or the latest hardware.
Over 260 registered from more than 110 companies. Claus was highly visible, chairing throughout and moderating all panel sessions.
The three day agenda was clearly structured with one day each for Security, Innovation and Carriers.
Be afraid.... very afraid. The reality is that Wi-Fi is remarkably easy to intercept and hack. A rogue hotspot setup by a friendly “white hat” speaker during the morning attracted more than 15 connections. Logging into the official free Wi-Fi immediately prompted a browser warning that their security certificate had expired. Various solutions were proposed which boiled down to either always using a VPN or Hotspot 2.0 when away from known secure service at home or office.
It seems we are a bit like hardened smokers - we know the risks but continue the habit regardless.
But it’s not always user friendly - after installing a trial VPN service from F-Secure on my smartphone, I couldn’t then register with the free event Wi-Fi service because the pop-up “Terms and Conditions” screen was blocked. You need to manually disable the VPN during the login process.
Clearly there remains much more work to do to make this kind of customer experience more seamless. Passpoint, which encrypts the radio interface from the outset, promises to do that. But most mobile networks aren’t interested in providing a free authentication service outside their own needs for handling Wi-Fi offload traffic. Add to that the fact that many venues want you to see a splash screen and accept T&Cs, it looks likely that there will remain a wide mix of different modes of Wi-Fi available for many years to come.
Surveys reveal that about half of Wi-Fi hotspots today are secured using WPA2. Password discipline is very poor (the top password is 123456). Other earlier standards have all been compromised, and many venues (such as my hotel) simply offer direct connection without any password for simplicity. I doubt that many of their guests appreciate all their browsing is completely open and in the clear.
The second day saw many more discussions around venue Wi-Fi. Graham Cove of Synaptix (and formerly Director of Wi-Fi at EE and MD of TheCloud) explained that many venue owners hadn’t much idea of why they were installing the service or what value they could derive from it. Education is improving the situation - using the term “value creation” rather than monetization - explaining how to capture footfall traffic movements, knowing when customers enter the store rather than when they buy something before leaving etc. All these help the business case.
Both Aptilo and Global Reach, the two major players in Carrier Wi-Fi system technology, enthused about Passport 2.0/Hotspot 2.0 and how this would make connecting a seamless and secure experience. The concern for retailers would be that they would be bypassed and would not see which of their customers was in their store. Both vendors told me they could facilitate that, but I’d be quite concerned about privacy issues. I compare this to commercial TV and Netflix - if I’m paying a subscription to use a premium service I don’t want to be pounded with special offers and adverts all the time.
BandwidthX, who have just announced a partnership with DeviceScape. explained their concept of a real-time free market in excess Wi-Fi capacity. This would be sold wholesale to Mobile Network operators as and when they need it. Mechanisms to ensure quality, quantity and price are built in to manage and ensure good customer experience. Pertti Visuri, their CEO, confirmed to me that it would be BandwidthX clients running on the smartphone which could now make use of DeviceScape’s large database of Curated WI-Fi hotspots.
Steve Dyett of BT explained that it’s not just end-user security that’s needed. Hardening of access points (e.g. physically by locking them up, disguising or hiding them, disabling unused IP ports, centralizing as much equipment as possible are important. Onno de Vriij explained how SAS use big data processing to profile and identify unusual behavior across as many as 10 billion daily cyber activity events for a large company.
Two cable companies in Netherlands and Belgium explained how they have made full use of their residential cable modems and street distribution cabinets to provide blanket coverage in many areas. Ziggo can reach up to 50m left and right and 100m directly ahead from each street cabinet. While they quoted 100% Wi-Fi coverage of one Dutch town (Zwolle), they typically don’t serve business districts or wide open areas such as parks.
Telenet of Belgium is currently an MVNO, and so benefits from offloading cellular traffic onto it’s own Wi-Fi/Cable network. Now that they plan to acquire BASE, a mobile network, their strategy may change.
Peter White, CEO of Rethink Research, gave a provocative view that the US will lead the way in a shift to Wi-Fi first network service. He reported some stark financial results of major US and UK networks, arguing that more traffic needs to be offloaded to Wi-Fi to improve investment returns. He predicts 2 million subscribers a year will switch to T-Mobile and to cable networks, leaving the ATT/Verizon share price "in tatters". I’d note that with 100 million subscribers, that still leaves at least 50 years to recover and that AT&T seems to be doing quite well based on the chart below. I also felt I didn’t get a clear answer when I asked about the impact of T-Mobile’s newly launched residential femtocells.
Analyst Fredrik Jungermann of tefficient gave several examples of how large network operators are deploying significant numbers of (mostly residential) Wi-Fi access points around the world. The largest today is Comcast with 11.7M while BT UK and Orange France tie second place with 5M. China Mobile has by far the most non-residential hotspots - over 4M - with few having anything like that number. They’ve since switched investment into their LTE network.
Derek Peterson, CTO Boingo, painted a picture of the future with heavy data use from OTT Media, Gaming and virtual reality. He's renamed his Network Operations Centre into the Service Management Team. I liked his clear explanation of mixed use of technologies in a large stadium with DAS for the main bowl supplemented by Wi-Fi throughout with Small Cells in the “nosebleed” seats and car parks less easily served by those methods. He talked about improving the complexity of Wi-Fi roaming, specifically seeking to improve connection/authentication times and being much smarter (including "prediction based roaming") of which hotspot to connect to. Watch out for the latest 802.11r and 802.11k features to enable that.
Moving on from Offload to Customer Experience
I got different stories about the commercial status of Passport and why it’s taking longer to appear in volume from different people. Some mentioned device support, but all the latest smartphones can handle it; some mentioned lack of engagement from mobile network operators (they generally don’t get paid for Wi-Fi but do for LTE traffic); some mentioned the desire for venue owners to have some visibility and engagement with their visitors/guests.
But a common theme was that it isn’t enough just to make a connection and deliver data at high speeds. Wi-Fi Offload was last year’s theme; this year it’s about the “customer experience”. Behaviour of where and when to connect (normally handled by a connection manager) needs to be further refined. With so many different parties wanting to make those decisions – network operators, Wi-Fi provider, smartphone manufacturer and of course the user, there’s plenty of room for confusion.
An example of poor service might be connecting to a nearby house homespot when stopped at the traffic lights and then losing service for a period when driving off. I’ve had similar experiences when stopped at a station on the train or even walking by houses in the street. In these cases, it can take up to a minute to reconnect or switch back to cellular. A goal of 250ms to switch or reconnect was mentioned.
In many ways the conference reflected the diverse range of views and players in the Wi-Fi ecosystem. Although the radio technology has been very successful, with standard Wi-Fi certification in particular ensuring mass adoption, there is a huge range of players. Many companies offer cloud based systems to manage venue Wi-Fi and Carrier Wi-Fi, with a variety of different business cases.
The switch of focus to Customer Experience and ensuring a seamless, secure and effective service is clear. That will take some further standardization work and improvement – Passpoint/Hotspot 2.0 isn’t enough to achieve that yet.
So I’m still confident that Wi-Fi isn’t about to wipe out the market for small cells – both Wi-Fi, Small Cells and DAS will all co-exist for some time. The higher quality managed service, secure and seamless access, using controlled spectrum is worth a premium.