By Claus Hetting, Wi-Fi NOW CEO & Chairman
Mobile & Wi-Fi convergence – sometimes called mobile data offload – is picking up steam with Facebook-backed Telecom Infra Project (TIP) pushing for industry-wide adoption (we’ll have more to say about this shortly) and now also a new roaming service launched today by Aruba Networks called Aruba Air Pass. Cisco launched their solution for mobile-Wi-Fi convergence last year with their OpenRoaming Federation.
Today Aruba Networks – a division of HPE – launched their bid for becoming a primary enabler of Wi-Fi 6-based indoor wireless services for cellular operators. The service is called Aruba Air Pass and it allows automatic handoff of data and voice calls between cellular and Wi-Fi networks by means of the Passpoint protocol, also known as Hotspot 2.0. The idea is to convince cellular operators to adopt the new and vastly improved Wi-Fi 6 standard as their preferred indoor wireless solution.
Aruba’s new service is a concerted attempt at solving a persistent cellular coverage problem: Delivering indoor cellular services – for data and voice – from the outside is hard. In the case of 5G the problem is aggravated because the higher frequency bands used by 5G lend themselves poorly to penetrating walls and windows. Hence whatever indoor cellular coverage problems exist today – and they are common – are in many cases going to get worse with 5G.
Extending 5G footprint into enterprises
Enter Aruba’s Air Pass, which allows you to hand off the data or voice call from cellular (when you’re outside) to Wi-Fi 6 (when you’re inside). The technology to do this – meaning Passpoint – has been around for years. But Aruba is correct in seeing a new opportunity emerge now: “Telcos can extend their 5G footprint into the enterprise and enable seamless Wi-Fi calling and gigabit-class guaranteed performance,” Aruba says in their press release here.
Aruba also says they’re in the process of finalising Air Pass deals with major carriers. The idea is for carriers to get access to plentiful Wi-Fi capacity for their subscribers at Aruba-equipped venues. Technically, carriers will need to hook up their core networks to Aruba’s newly launched Air Pass authentication hub and service platform.
Aruba is not disclosing how the business deals are strung together although it’s a safe bet that carriers will get to pay for using venue Wi-Fi infrastructure for their traffic. “We’re working with Tier 1 US and European carriers at various stages of development, some carrier clients are already in live trails with customers,” says Jeff Lipton, VP of Strategy & Corporate Development at Aruba Networks. It is not clear what value venue owners will receive from carriers roaming onto venue Wi-Fi networks.
Aruba is also bundling in their access control ‘ClearPass’ solution (for onboarding, security, and policies) as well as their ‘Air Slice’ RF-level quality assurance scheme as part of the new roaming push. Our take is that Aruba is exactly right in touting a quality management solution as part of the overall scheme as Wi-Fi quality will surely be high on the list of mobile operator concerns.
Passpoint-based SIM authentication required
The new Air Pass service will use the cellular subscriber SIM credentials for authentication, which is (one of) the standardised authentication schemes of the Passpoint standard. For more about Passpoint also see the Wi-Fi Alliance’s website here. Passpoint is both ‘seamless’ – meaning subscribers don’t actively need to do anything on phones provisioned for the service, they will auto-connect to Wi-Fi – and secure, meaning it supports telco-grade (WPA3) security. Most US carriers today sell phones that are already set up for Passpoint.
Some form of service management platform integration between Aruba’s Air Pass authentication hub and cellular service providers’ core infrastructure will be needed to get this to work. This is a non-trivial but solvable technical issue that will involve carriers carefully defining and implementing new Wi-Fi roaming policies perhaps for hundreds or thousands of venues – if Aruba is successful.
Historically, the Achille’s Heel of mobile data offload (or convergence, if you like) has been lack of a consistent connectivity management on the device side. The good news is that companies such as Speedify, Tessares, and Mobilise have been around for a while and offer solutions to this end. It is hard to imagine the need for device-side connectivity management go away even with the advent of much higher quality Wi-Fi with Wi-Fi 6 although the purported convergence of Wi-Fi 6 ‘RAN’ into 5G core networks may eventually to some extent mitigate the need.
Cisco & Telecom Infra Project: On a similar convergence path
Aruba is not alone in relaunching the concept of mobile & Wi-Fi convergence – and they are not even the first. Last year Cisco introduced their OpenRoaming scheme, which is broadly similar to Aruba’s Air Pass. OpenRoaming is laid out as a roaming platform supporting a ‘federation’ of participating Wi-Fi-capable venues and credential providers. The initiative is also based on Passpoint-based zero-touch, auto-connect Wi-Fi roaming. Read more about OpenRoaming here.
Although mobile network operators may be excited and delighted at the prospect of phones auto-connecting to high-quality indoor Wi-Fi, not all venue owners will share their enthusiasm. Most public-facing enterprises – such as hotels, restaurants, sports stadiums, etc. – rely on Wi-Fi captive portals as a valuable means of engaging with guests and fans directly.
Hence auto-connect Wi-Fi for bypassing traditional captive portals may not be exactly what venue owners are looking for. The Air Pass scheme can however also be applied in a captive portal-based onboarding scenario, in which case subscribers and venues alike will still benefit from telco-grade Wi-Fi security, Aruba says.