Femtocell Opinion, comment and reviews

Are public Wi-Fi standards too late to match femtocell capabilities?

wi-fi-alliance-logoThe Wi-Fi Alliance announced plans to develop specifications for use of Wi-Fi for public access. Timeframe indicated is perhaps middle of 2012 (it’s quoted as 1H2012) for the first certified products. Is this a case of too little too late, or will this raise Wi-Fi service capability to match that offered by public access femtocells?

Those new Wi-Fi specifications

The press release said that the work to date involved “formalizing a set of industry market requirements”. Presumably this still requires considerable effort to design and specify the implementation as well as the conformance testing specifications. Test equipment vendors and product vendors would both have to implement these specifications, with independent test labs conducting and validating the tests thereafter. It seems quite ambitious to achieve all of this by the middle of 2012, but not out of the question if there is enough industry (and service provider) support.

The Wi-Fi alliance have already proven themselves successful in developing widely interoperable Wi-Fi equipment, leading to the large volumes of product, low unit costs and wide adoption. I have no doubt they can duplicate this success, and welcome the likely benefits.

Those market requirements

The key benefits quoted span four areas:

  • Network Discovery and Selection: Devices discover and automatically choose networks based upon user preferences, operator policies and network optimization

My iPhone is always popping up prompts about every Wi-Fi hotspot it finds as I walk along the street. Apart from the slight annoyance of this (which can be easily disabled as a configuration option), it’s probably also wasting a lot of battery life. But those hotspots I’ve previously registered with, such as at home, office, friend’s house, café and even my service provider’s own/roaming hotspots etc. , are automatically discovered and re-connected. To be honest, there’s little I’d want to be different – the times I do have to choose are either where I sign in to a “free WiFi” service from the building owner (presumably not covered by this specification) or when roaming to Wi-Fi in other countries (typically very expensive and rarely used).

  • Streamlined Network Access: In many cases, devices will be automatically granted access to the network based upon credential mechanisms, such as SIM cards, which are widely used in cellular devices today

The primary consumer benefit described here suggests its more about quickly registering on a new Wi-Fi network, but the implicit benefit is that the authentication is secure. This is perhaps of more benefit to the service provider, trying to avoid unauthorised or inappropriate access to their Wi-Fi service. The use of SIM cards as the authentication mechanism ties it in closely with existing mobile network operators – whether this will be the only (or preferred) authentication method remains to be seen.

I have to say I certainly prefer the idea of using a secure method of logging into hotspots rather than sending passwords in the clear. However this can be achieved by using encryption methods over the air, such as SSL.

  • Immediate Account Provisioning: The process of establishing a new user account at the point of access will be streamlined, eliminating user steps and driving a common provisioning methodology across vendors

When compared to having to enter your full personal details and credit card information for every new hotspot service you want to use – something that always feels risky to me - this sounds much better. However what I’d like is not to have any new accounts, but simply have a single account that allows me to roam to use other networks when travelling at a sensible price and with ease of billing.

Wi-Fi roaming should allow this, but can be expensive and still isn’t as widely interconnected as cellular service. Mobile service providers sometimes provide this linked to your cellular account, but it’s still not that widespread and often costly. Perhaps that’s because the alternative – just using roaming mobile data – is both widely available and highly profitable.

Perhaps another level of roaming is to setup a temporary one-off prepaid “account” by making a single payment through Paypal or other online financial service. What I’ve seen though is that hotspot providers typically want to capture your details, sometime for follow on marketing, or to setup an account so they can sell you service in other areas more easily. I recall when first using Boingo that I had to install a client program that continued to annoy me with pop-ups wherever I went. It also automatically logged me into a different hotspot on a later trip at much higher and unexpected cost – you can bet that program was quickly removed and expunged.

  • WPA2™ Security: Over-the-air transmissions are encrypted using the latest-generation security technology

Security when using public hotspots is a major concern to me. This will definitely improve my perception as long as it also includes mutual authentication of the hotspot (i.e. confirming it’s not a spoof hotspot setup to capture my information). Most smartphones and laptops already support this technology, although it may need some further enhancements.

The implication - a three tier Wi-Fi access service?

Once implemented, I could envisage we’ll have a landscape with three classes of Wi-Fi access:

  • Service Provider controlled Wi-Fi hotspots. Assuming these do permit roaming (so any subscriber from any network can access them) without excessive charges, then the security, ease of access and managed operation should be good.
  • Free Wi-Fi from independent businesses. The current widely available free Wi-Fi service offered by many businesses with public access (e.g. hotels, conference centers etc.) comes typically with open access and no security/encryption. This will surely continue – not everyone will want to signup for direct control from the network operator. The questions are  whether it will be obvious to consumers that they are on an insecure/open hotspot, and whether consumers will be prepared to pay a premium for operator controlled/secure service.
  • Private Wi-Fi at home or business. The encryption and security is controlled by the owner and can be offered to guests at their discretion.

Revisiting our standard categories of use cases

Let’s assess where this new standard would apply, using our earlier categorisation of hotspots:

Category Examples Secure Public Wi-Fi applicable
Indoor Trusted Home or Office

No

Indoor untrusted Transport Hubs, Conference Centres, Pubs, Restaurants Yes
Outdoor Stationary Town centres, Outdoor shopping centres Yes
Outdoor Slow Moving Pedestrian Streets No – switching between hotspots may not work effectively/efficiently
Transit Systems Trains, Planes and Ships Maybe, although femtocells would remain much easier to use if price (to consumer) is right and also support voice. Roaming for cellular service is already in place to handle billing

Clearly, those untrusted, stationary, public areas will be the prime target. For those moving around, or in premium locations and wanting also to use voice, femtocells would be a better solution.

Where does this leave femtocells?

For me, public femtocells still offer the seamless, easy to use service that I want. Frankly, like most people I just want a good data connection everywhere I go at a low price. I’m happy to switch between different radio technologies and/or service providers if this improves data rates or cost.

Femtocells offer this capability at the moment but are usually locked to a single network. More sharing of femtocell access in public areas would match or exceed all of the  requirements which the Wi-Fi alliance has outlined above and is available today.

But clearly, the growing adoption, investment and acceptance of Wi-Fi in public areas will be seen as a threat to the mass market deployment of large numbers of public access femtocells. However, this is still 1-2 years away and allows femtocells the time to gain a lead.

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