OpenRoaming WiFi

AT&T recently conducted a test of WBA OpenRoaming WiFi in the historic 6th Street district of Austin, Texas. This is  technology that allows a WiFi user to roam between public hotspots without having to log-in to each new hotspot.

WBA stands for the Wireless Broadband Alliance, and the vision is that this technology will work for any ISPs or carriers that join the WBA federation. If the technology works as promised, and if multiple large carriers join the WBA federation, a user might seamlessly bounce between WiFi routers supported by different carriers.

One of the key aspects of the test is the use of Passpoint technology that was developed fifteen years ago by the Wi-Fi Alliance. This is software that provides and approves credentials for a WiFi user across different networks. Quick authentication is vital to the idea of roaming between hotspots operated by different ISPs and carriers. This allows WBA OpenRoaming to verify users quickly without having to rely on the MAC address of the user’s device.

The carriers are touting this as a great feature for WiFi users. A cellphone user could walk around a downtown district and not lose WiFi connectivity while moving between hotspots operated by different ISPs or wireless carriers. The WBA is promoting the WiFi connections as safe since every member of the federation agrees to use end-to-end encryption of the WiFi communication path – which would eliminate the biggest threat from using public WiFi.

What is not being discussed is the bigger motivation of the cellular carriers for implementing the technology. This would offload huge volumes of cellular data traffic to the landline broadband connections of the stores, shops, and restaurants that offer WiFi routers to the public. In a crowded environment like 6th Street in Austin, this would remove a huge amount of traffic from the cellular network in busy times.

This is something that cellular companies have wanted to do for many years. There was an earlier attempt to make this concept work in 2013 and 2014. At that time, the technology was labeled as Hotspot 2.0. The trials of that technology introduced Passpoint validation and had the ultimate goal of reliving data pressure on the cellular networks. Many of you may have sat in presentations at industry conventions that promised big revenues for landline ISPs for WiFi offloading – the idea was that the cellular companies would pay to get traffic off the cellular network. That idea never went much further than trials, and here we are in 2021 trying the idea again under a new name.

I also wonder if cellular companies see this as a revenue opportunity. It’s not hard to envision them selling the WiFi roaming feature to cellular customers for a few dollars per month – effectively getting WiFi users to pay to offload traffic to landline broadband connections.

Regardless of the motivation of the cellular carriers, it’s an idea that is long overdue. Users benefit by being able to stay under data caps on cellular data plans. The carriers benefit in crowded environments by shielding cellular networks from becoming overloaded. I just hope that the merchants supplying the underlying broadband will have unlimited data plans – or they are the ones who will pick up the tab for this.

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