Tech bigwigs drive new global Wi-Fi roaming initiative

The Wi-Fi industry for years has been trying make Wi-Fi roaming as easy as cellular roaming. Can the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) finally make it happen with the acceptance of Cisco Systems’ OpenRoaming technology? That’s the plan.

The WBA announced last month that it was inviting organizations in the Wi-Fi ecosystem to join the WBA OpenRoaming program and become part of a globally available Wi-Fi federation that offers automatic and secure connection to millions of Wi-Fi networks. The idea is to create a world where Wi-Fi users move from one network to another without needing to constantly re-register or sign in.

The WBA announced in March that it was taking over ownership and management of OpenRoaming from Cicso, which had been working on it for about two years. It’s built on the foundation of Passpoint, also known as Hotspot 2.0, which allows people to automatically and securely connect to Wi-Fi networks, acting more like a cellular network. Those signing onto support the WBA’s initiative include AT&T, Cisco, Comcast, Google, Samsung, American Tower, Boingo Wireless, Deutsche Telekom, Intel and more.

RELATED: Cisco hands OpenRoaming over to WBA

Why did Cisco hand OpenRoaming over to the WBA? While people talk a lot about speeds and network quality, Cisco understood early on that the simple act of getting someone on the network is the biggest problem, according to Cisco CTO of Wireless Matt MacPherson.

“The Number One problem really was just getting people on the network in the first place,” he told FierceWireless. If holding onto the technology was viewed as a competitive advantage, “maybe you get a bigger piece of the pie, but you’re not actually solving the broad industry problem, which if you solve, you actually would grow the size of the pie.” In this case, more use cases across industries can be enabled with better Wi-Fi roaming.

Giving it to the WBA made sense because the organization has been working on roaming for a long time, and it has the ties to both the service provider and the enterprise sides of the equation.

If Cisco didn’t plant it somewhere like WBA, the fear is a lot of different players would try to tackle the problem and the industry would end up with a bunch of siloed approaches. By the time that worked itself out, seven more years may have passed, and “we need to solve this problem now,” he said.

MacPherson said it’s also kind of silly that users need to go into a connection manager and pick an SSID and basically know some of the intricacies of Wi-Fi when people use LTE every day without having to be LTE experts.    

WBA’s mission

WBA CEO Tiago Rodrigues said the overall objective is to connect as many Wi-Fi networks as possible together with as many identity providers as possible, which may be carriers, ISPs, loyalty programs or internet players like Google.

“The feedback that we are getting from our members is very positive,” he said, noting some large trial deployments already have been underway with the likes of Cisco and Boingo Wireless.

Companies that join WBA OpenRoaming can allow end users to automatically connect on any Wi-Fi network managed by a federation member, eliminating the need for SSID-password guessing games, insecure login credentials or reconnecting to public Wi-Fi, according to the WBA.

Getting access to places during COVID-19 closures isn’t an issue because telecom is an essential business, but even if that were a problem, it’s not necessary because the kinds of changes they’re talking about doing can be done remotely, according to Boingo CTO Derek Peterson. The issue is more about getting the profile on devices, which means partnering with the likes of Apple, Google and Intel or those who control the loyalty programs at airports.