The future of public WiFi in India and the world

By Prasid Banerjee | Published on 15 Jan 2016
The future of public WiFi in India and the world

A technology known as Next Gen Hotspot, or Hotspot 2.0, has been brewing for a few years, and is finally ready to come to the fore.

You know how connecting to public WiFis can be a big pain in the backside? Walk into the airport, connect to the public WiFi there, and you don’t get the OTP required to sign in. More often than not, you won’t even get to the OTP stage, since the sign in page itself will not open. Why? Because there are thousands like you at the airport, who are all connected to the network, and are trying to sign on to it. As a result, the network is congested, leading to issues that most of us complain about. While bandwidth remains the chief constraint in public WiFi in India and even overseas, the efficiency of the system isn’t determined by it alone. Enter, Next Generation Hotspot (NGH).

Next Generation WiFi Hotspot
There are two things that you need to know about NGH. The first — it has the potential to change the WiFi experience forever — and the second is that the Indian government has shown interest in it. The Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), which has been spearheading the adoption of this technology, is set to demonstrate the technology to the government on January 21, through a technical trial. The demonstration will be made in the presence of personnel from telecom operators and the government.

NGH’s goal is to bypass the sign-on process. As public WiFis become more important with connected and smart city initiatives, it is important to provide a seamless experience by standardising the process. Through this, a user’s device can connect to a WiFi network automatically, with no need for One Time Passwords (OTP), usernames and so on.

Also known as Hotspot 2.0, the technology is based on something called Passpoint. This is a certification, signifying that your device is capable of 802.1x and 802.11u functionalities. The two together can bypass the login/sign-on process that you otherwise have to go through. IEEE 802.1x is responsible for authenticating networks, while 802.11u takes care of the authentication and network identification processes.

Shrikant Shenwai, CEO, WBA, explains, “It gives you an almost cellular like experience. For that, your devices have to support certain standards. Your network infrastructures also have to support these capabilities, and so do the operators. So, it doesn’t matter what OEM you’re buying a phone from, or whose network infrastructure is being used, it will all work out.”

On paper, it sounds like there’s a lot of work that OEMs, operators and others need to do. But Shenwai explains that most major vendors (both network vendors and device manufacturers) already support this technology on the infrastructure level. It’s just a matter of implementing the technology now. Shenwai explains that while some costs will be involved to deploy the technology, the base is already set, and there are no significant additional cost involved. For instance, companies like Samsung, Apple and many others already have their devices supporting this technology.

To simplify, imagine walking into the airport and finding your mobile already connected to the network. With NGH, your smartphone finds access points using a process known as beaconing. It sends out data packets to find access points, which are then authenticated and connected to. Shenwai explained a situation from San Jose, California, where his device connects to WiFis at the airport automatically, whenever he lands. This is because the operator has tie-ups with certain WiFi providers, allowing such services. In fact, AT&T has a roaming plan where it offers users both mobile data and WiFi data. The latter is meant for its partner networks in a different city or country.

“Experience wise, the operator has behind the scenes, given your identity through the SIM card and knows how to securely connect to the network,” said Shenwai. Connections through the NGH technology are secured using the WPA2 protocol, which ensures security as well. The overall idea is to make WiFi networks operate the same way as mobile networks do — when you go to a different country, your smartphone can connect to a local telco’s network there, based on who your home operator has tie-ups with.

Why is NGH relevant for India?
That’s the easy part. With the smart cities initiative, India has to first establish a connected city, before it yearns to be smart. In order to become a connected city, deployment of fast and functional public WiFi zones is very important. While NGH doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of bandwidth, Shenwai explains that automatic authentication puts less load on the network, since users are not connected to the network during verification/connection attempt processes. NGH may not be the complete solution, but it’s a part of the broader picture.

The WBA is organising the second chapter of its WBA Vision Forum in New Delhi on January 22, where NGH will be one of the chief technologies under discussion for achieving Delhi’s goal to provide public WiFi hotspots all around the city. Providing good, public WiFi, though, doesn’t depend solely on the government. Initiatives from corporates, like that taken by Google for Indian railway stations, are also important. The WBA is trying to establish a public-private model as well, where big firms like Microsoft, Google and others would help in achieving these goals.

NGH currently isn’t operational anywhere in India, but Shenwai states that India not having a history of good connectivity solutions and WiFi gives it a better chance to establish something that is the best in the world. This is, of course, because we can learn from the various deployments over the world. Devices as old as the Samsung Galaxy S3 are capable of supporting the technology, which means that the groundwork has been around for a while. With the right implementation, NGH can end up being the future of WiFi, and a key component of India’s smart cities initiative. The technology isn’t new, but has been brewing all over the world and is finally ready to be unleashed to the public.

Prasid Banerjee

Trying to explain technology to my parents. Failing miserably.

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