By Claus Hetting, Wi-Fi NOW CEO & Chairman
It has been a long time coming but Wi-Fi ‘offload’ is back: South African wholesale Wi-Fi network provider VAST has arguably built the first true carrier-grade ‘offload’ network that serves mobile subscribers seamlessly and transparently with Wi-Fi. VAST’s Passpoint-powered services went live last week.
After years of fitful starts, mobile and Wi-Fi connectivity may finally be converging into a single, meaningful service fabric. Except this time the operator taking the lead is not a US or Europe-based telco giant but instead an innovative network provider startup from the deep south.
Cellular or Wi-Fi? It’s the same – but faster
South African Wi-Fi network provider VAST Networks has created a wholesale Wi-Fi service allowing mobile subscribers to connect automatically, seamlessly, and securely to high-quality Wi-Fi at thousands of VAST hotspots across the country. Add to this that subscribers will experience no difference between their usual mobile service and VAST Wi-Fi – except in many cases better and faster connectivity when using the Wi-Fi service, the company says.
A world first: Layer 2 forwarding
Technically, VAST says the trick is to use Hotspot 2.0 (aka Passpoint), EAP-family authentication, and – and this is unique to VAST – Layer 2 forwarding. “We tunnel the IP traffic to the core networks of our offloading partners, for example a mobile or enterprise network operator. The operator retains complete control of the service also when the subscriber is on Wi-Fi. This also means that the subscriber can enjoy precisely the same services on Wi-Fi as on his or her home cellular or home enterprise network,” says Khetan Gajjar, CTO of VAST Networks.
VAST’s approach also makes serving multiple mobile or enterprise operators on the same infrastructure a lot easier. “Subscribers from any operator that we have an offload agreement with can simply connect to the same Wi-Fi network name. And they only have to have the service provisioned once. From then on the device will autoconnect and authenticate when in range of a VAST Wi-Fi signal,” says Khetan Gajjar. VAST currently operates more than 30,000 Wi-Fi APs across South Africa.
‘Offload’ & roaming agreements in the pipeline, says VAST
While VAST executives are working on securing offload agreements with local MNOs, precisely the same architecture and approach can be used in the case of inbound roaming. “Imagine tourists from the US or Europe visiting South Africa and immediately being able to enjoy Wi-Fi connectivity without needing to do anything on the device. Such a service is available from VAST today,” says Khetan Gajjar.
South Africa receives close to 17 million tourists a year.
The technology has been around for a while but VAST is – as far as we know – the first ISP to deploy such a network commercially. “We’re doing this with industry standard components, handsets that have been available for more than 5 years, and we don’t require any special or exclusive access to spectrum. Add to that of course our own skills and experience,” says Khetan.