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The GSM Association and the Wireless Broadband Alliance aim to integrate license-free WiFi into their commercial carrier products to ease the traffic load on their crowded licensed networks. WiFi roaming will allow mobile devices to connect seamlessly to a hotspot using a SIM card for authentication.

“The combination of Wi-Fi and mobile technologies extends the power of broadband for consumers,” said Shrikant Shenwai, CEO, WBA. Cellphones will be able to use operators’ WiFi hotspots without cumbersome logging-in procedures. It’s intended to eliminate sign-on screens and long lists of nearby networks that users often need to traverse to get on a public Wi-Fi system.

The initiative folds unlicensed Wi-Fi into cellular architecture. The group will now work towards aligning guidelines on security, billing, data offload, device implementation and network selection to create a consistent solution for GSMA and WBA members. The industry alliance said the first carriers would start to use the new technologies within 12 months, while it would likely take 2-3 years for this to become widespread.

This Next Generation Hotspot initiative from the Wireless Broadband Alliance is a counterpart to the Hotspot 2.0 device specifications promoted by the Wi-Fi Alliance. A little-known WiFi protocol extension, IEEE 802.11u, provides seamless, automatic Wi-Fi authentication and handoff. The GSM Association’s Hotspot 2.0 initiative uses 802.11u as a fundamental building block, but extends the 802.11u protocol to effectively automate the network discovery, registration, provisioning and access of WiFi services.

Trials of this Next-Generation Hotspot technology, called Hotspot 2.0, have involved AT&T, BT, China Mobile, NTT DoCoMo, Orange and other large operators around the world. Aruba, Cisco, and Ruckus use 802.11u and Hotspot 2.0, approved by the WBA, while carriers like Ericsson, Alcatel-Lucent, and others have announced multi-radio strategies, incorporating previously free WiFi into their cellular architecture. BelAir Networks was acquired by Ericsson last month.

According to the Wi-Fi Alliance, about 200 million households use Wi-Fi networks and there are about 750,000 Wi-Fi hotspots worldwide. Wi-Fi is used by over 700 million people and there are about 800 million new Wi-Fi devices every year.

Other carriers utilizing “unlicensed” WiFi technology include Ruckus Wireless which was selected by The Cloud, the UK’s largest public access Wi-Fi provider, to supply indoor WiFi, expanding its nationwide Wi-Fi network. Ruckus uses 802.11u and Hotspot 2.0, to enable users to automatically connect and authenticate to the best available Wi-Fi network.

The Cloud provides public Wi-Fi — for its subscribers.

Other carrier-controlled WiFi networks include:

Approximately 90 percent of all tablets in the U.S. relied on Wi-Fi, according to industry analyst Chetan Sharma.

With the development of 802.11n, one WiFi network can now hog ALL the available channels on the unlicensed 2.4 GHz band, effectively eliminating nearby “free” competition in a mall or other public place. Ruckus says beamforming is a solution.

Another solution would be to use the carriers’ own licensed frequencies – with femtocells.

According to the Wireless Broadband Alliance, figures for 2011 put the total number of Wi-Fi hotspots worldwide at 1.3 million. That number is forecasted to take a huge leap forward and grow 350% to 5.8 million by 2015. According to a report by In-Stat Research entitled “Wi-Fi Hotspots: the Mobile Operator’s 3G Offload Alternative,” worldwide hotspot venues are projected to increase to over 1.2 million venues in 2015 from under 421,000 in 2010. Usage will follow similar growth, increasing from four billion connects in 2010 to 120 billion connects by 2015.

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