This article is part of the Technology Insight series made possible by funds from Intel.
It is easy to take for granted that our phones are always looking for towers nearby to keep calls and streaming services connected, even when we’re on the go. Wi-Fi, on the other hand, likes to remind us that it’s set up differently. If you’ve ever tried to pull a boarding pass at an airport to get stuck behind a captive portal, you understand the inconsistent and often frustrating behavior of public WiFi.
The OpenRoaming initiative, managed and sponsored by the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), aims to create a more mobile experience by authenticating your laptop or mobile phone and joining the participating Wi-Fi networks while you are switch from one to the next. No more scrolling through lists of SSIDs. You no longer have to ask for passwords in conference rooms. And no more disapproving looks from gatekeepers.
The effects of widespread adoption of OpenRoaming are obvious. On a phone, you get higher bit rates and stronger signals indoors compared to cellular networks, as well as data savings in measurement plans and international roaming. Laptop users enjoy extensive Wi-Fi connectivity that they haven̵
However, OpenRoaming is more than just a street fighter game. According to the WBA, “OpenRoaming offers companies and companies … the opportunity to quickly and easily create new commercial business models and innovative services.”
Let’s examine the inner workings of OpenRoaming, what the technology means for the future of Wi-Fi, and how it was recently deployed in one of Europe’s largest business centers.
- OpenRoaming is a federation service that enables seamless onboarding and a secure connection to participating Wi-Fi networks.
- OpenRoaming enables a cellular-like experience and facilitates consistency when switching between cellular and Wi-Fi networks.
- This technology is ready for prime time. After several public demos, the first commercial use of OpenRoaming for residents of Canary Wharf Estate in London was recently announced.
OpenRoaming gives you Wi-Fi for a seamless experience
The transition from Wi-Fi 5 (IEEE 802.11ac) to Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) brings significant improvements in scalability, security and performance. What more can we want from our wireless networks? “… there are a few things that we believe need to be resolved beyond the efficiency of Wi-Fi,” said Jérôme Henry, chief engineer at Cisco’s CTAO office, at a technical event dedicated to Wi-Fi 6 role of the company. out. “One of them is easy onboarding.”
This is what OpenRoaming promises to address. “It would be a significant step forward to prevent users from navigating to a portal, entering a password, subscribing to a service, or providing personal information when connecting to a new Wi-Fi network,” says Dr. Carlos Cordeiro, CTO of wireless connectivity at Intel and IEEE staff. “OpenRoaming enables credentials to be re-used to access Wi-Fi networks wherever the user is, whether or not the user knows the network.” It should just work like your cellular connection.
In order for mobile devices to connect to cellular networks from Los Angeles to Lisbon, the operators must negotiate international roaming agreements. Hundreds of these agreements deal with the technical and commercial relationships between airlines. With 628 million public hotspots expected around the world by 2023, it’s just not practical for lawyers to work out agreements between everyone with Wi-Fi hardware.
Instead, OpenRoaming creates a cloud-based federation service that connects trusted identity providers (IDPs) who manage your credentials and access providers who operate Wi-Fi networks. OpenRoaming uses industry standards such as Passpoint, RADIUS, EAP and WBA Wireless Roaming Intermediary eXchange (WRIX) to automatically authenticate your mobile device and establish a secure connection. The credentials you use may come from a device (such as your phone’s Samsung ID), a service provider (such as Verizon), or an online platform such as LinkedIn. Access to the Wi-Fi network may be granted by your company’s IT department, a Marriott hotel, or an airport. Regardless of the combination, both sides define guidelines that determine the services available to you.
Access providers can choose the credentials they want to accept. At the same time, IDPs can specify for which access providers their credentials are valid. For example, a company could have employees with IT-issued notebooks with one access level on board, while guests are forwarded to another network via the same SSID. Or a retailer could authenticate members of a loyalty program on their network while preventing a competitor from accessing those credentials.
What makes OpenRoaming so attractive?
Aside from the convenience of skillfully switching between hotspots with uninterrupted service, OpenRoaming will play a major role in a future where the convergence between Wi-Fi and cellular is in lower latency connections in dense environments. You want elegant handovers between these heterogeneous networks while maintaining their strengths whether you are indoors or outdoors. If your device has the technology it needs to get into both networks with similar flexibility, they can be used in complementary ways. Apple is already doing this whenever possible for better Siri reliability.
Matt McPherson, CTO for wireless networks at Cisco, discussed the interplay between constant WLAN and cellular connections at Mobility Field Day 4 late last year. “If you are connected to both paths at the same time, you can get the assurance analysis from those paths. And when LTE goes weak, Wi-Fi goes strong and you give up that session without ever breaking the connection as both of them are connected. “
It may have taken six seconds or more to pass a session between LTE and Wi-Fi prior to the multi-way transport. That’s just long enough for everyone on the other end to give up and end the call. With Multi-Path, the transmission can be seamless. But only if you have established a connection to the Wi-Fi network on your way to the airport, the hotel lobby or the office building. OpenRoaming is what makes that path work without getting stuck behind a login page or, worse, a locked network.
That is not to say that OpenRoaming is synonymous with free access. In many industries, it makes perfect sense to provide customers with unrestricted WiFi. However, OpenRoaming also supports billed relationships, giving companies the freedom to choose how to bring customers onto their networks and whether to offer tiered services.
Why do I want to participate in OpenRoaming?
The increased use of Multi-Path is an example of how OpenRoaming works for end users in a heterogeneous world of high-speed cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity. The technology also offers new opportunities for companies that enable OpenRoaming in their networks.
For example, if you’re a retail store, OpenRoaming’s smooth Wi-Fi access and secure authentication provide a higher connection rate. This is a larger target group in which your app is installed. They really want to browse the sales that are streaming on their phones when they walk in the door.
OpenRoaming is also a game changer for IDPs. You no longer have to hinder Wi-Fi access through a cumbersome portal, nor do you have to sign up for social media or a loyalty program. With an agreed policy, IDPs and access providers can authenticate these users before they even realize they are on the network. There is also the option to collect anonymized analysis data in order to optimize the customer experience.
Ultimately, whether you are an access provider, an identity provider, or an ecosystem broker, OpenRoaming has something to offer. “… there is great value for everyone,” says Cordeiro of Intel. “Enterprise IT departments can more easily manage guest WiFi networks that support OpenRoaming. Device manufacturers and businesses can ensure that their devices are seamlessly and securely connected to OpenRoaming-enabled Wi-Fi networks. Identity providers can obtain valuable information about users. And infrastructure providers can offer their customers value-added services. OpenRoaming dramatically lowers or removes barriers for users to plug in their devices, so businesses can focus on delivering value-added services. “
Smooth WiFi available in the wild
OpenRoaming made its debut at Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. Attendees with certain Samsung phones could jump straight into the MWC network for a seamless experience across the exhibition space.
The local airport and train stations also participated in the pilot program. Although the various organizations used their own access providers, they were all part of the same association, so uninterrupted Wi-Fi access continued while those Samsung phones came within range. Apparently, most of the visitors didn’t even notice that OpenRoaming was doing the onboarding in the background. They were just on the Wi-Fi network like it was a cellular connection.
More recently, Cisco, Virgin Media and the Canary Wharf Group announced the first commercial OpenRoaming deployment on a five million square meter mixed-use development at Wood Wharf, London. The partnership includes more than 20,000 businesses with fast Wi-Fi 6 connectivity, while OpenRoaming enables residents to maintain a secure Wi-Fi connection across the district.
Now that the Wireless Broadband Alliance owns and manages OpenRoaming, the standard is ready for adoption by an even more diverse group of participants. Industry leaders such as Boingo Wireless, Cisco, GlobalReach Technology, Intel and Korea Telecom have already pledged support, WBA said. Dr. Derek Peterson, CTO at Boingo, sums it up best. “With the support of the WBA, interoperable roaming will go even further and open up new possibilities for the 5G era.”