Reader Forum: With Wi-Fi, operators must mind the gaps

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Telecom operators looking to integrate Wi-Fi into their connectivity options need to make sure they are prepared to deal with the details

In 2015, mobile data offload exceeded cellular data traffic for the first time ever, with 51% of total mobile data traffic offloaded onto a fixed network through Wi-Fi or femtocell. This trend in favor of mobile offload is projected to continue as increasingly data-hungry mobile users seek alternative access methods to ease the strain on capped – and expensive – cellular data plans, and mobile network operators aggressively pursue traffic management strategies such as Wi-Fi offload and tiered service offerings. The worldwide explosion of Wi-Fi hot spots in the last few years is another force being driven by a host of new service providers and impacting the behavior of mobile users.

While the ubiquity of Wi-Fi has enabled more flexible traffic management strategies, greater network density and new customer engagement opportunities, several new challenges have emerged, including:

Increased competition from new market players, such as cable/mobile service operators with extensive Wi-Fi footprints and “Wi-Fi-first” mobile virtual network operators like Republic Wireless or Google’s Project Fi.

Security issues with respect to legacy hot spot technology using “open” Wi-Fi and web login methods. On a related front, due to the plethora of “war stories” of Wi-Fi users being eavesdropped on or having their social media credentials hijacked has created a perception in the market that Wi-Fi is not secure. Mobile Network Operators and cable/Multiple System Operators must act rapidly to secure their networks so that, with time, this perception will change.

Growing operating expenses related to Wi-Fi service provisioning, deprovisioning, device churn out and subscription management. Until now, Wi-Fi has been a low volume, “value added” service not fully integrated with the core MNO business strategy. Because of this, streamlined processes and the technology integration required for low-cost/low effort service activation and fulfillment are lacking. To achieve profitability with regards to Wi-Fi strategies, operators must address these challenges and approach Wi-Fi as core to their overall business.

The complexity of mobile user experience when public Wi-Fi is involved. In the vast majority of cases, the onus is on the user to locate and authenticate access. The Wi-Fi Alliance has addressed many of the issues related to user onboarding and secure authentication with its Passpoint program (aka Hotspot 2.0), however several challenges still exist for MNOs to be able to provide a true “carrier-grade” user experience to subscribers when Wi-Fi is involved.

Limitations of Hotspot 2.0

Without doubt, the connectivity and security improvements enabled by Release 2 of WFA’s Hotspot 2.0 technical specification will tempt many MNOs into the false belief that Wi-Fi-related user experience issues are a thing of the past. While some device models already now support some aspects of this release, support is still nascent in terms of number of models and supported feature set.

For example, the built-in support on Android devices limits the usefulness of Hotspot 2.0 in the following ways:

• It only supports user authentication via username/password credentials and not via client certificates, which is perceived as more secure and is preferred by large enterprises.
• It does not provide automated subscriber churn management, which means expired client credentials on a subscriber’s device will continue to pound an operator’s network attempting authentication. These “zombie devices” result in unnecessary network traffic and customer care issues.
• It is not fully secure – Android (and iOS) devices will accept any online signup server with a certificate chained to any of the root certificate authorities preprovisioned on the device, even though Release 2 of the Hotspot 2.0 spec mandates that the OSU certificate must be chained to one of the root CAs whitelisted by the WFA.
• It still requires manual intervention. As Wi-Fi partners grow their network footprint by adding access points, subscribers will have to manually authorize connections to new access points when they are in range, thus diminishing the seamlessness associated with “carrier-grade” mobility.

Gap-filling for greater control and insight

These gaps in user experience, security and back-end management can be overcome with specialized device software that supplements, enhances and, most importantly for operators, differentiates their experience in a Hotspot 2.0 world. More specifically, certain client-based approaches enable:

• Zero-click credential provisioning and user authentication, which facilitates a carrier-grade user experience. Such a carrier-grade Wi-Fi experience is possible by provisioning Wi-Fi credentials during the bootstrap phase of mobile network authentication, thus eliminating the need for the user to enter any signup code or login credentials during onboarding.
• Automatic expiration and renewal of credentials, which guarantees that device credentials are always fresh and valid in accordance with subscriber contracts and partnership agreements.
• Automated churn management by ensuring that Wi-Fi profiles and associated credentials are removed from churn-out devices, thus reducing strain on the network and unnecessary customer care calls.

In conclusion, a client-enhanced approach to Wi-Fi offload and onboarding enables a level of control and insight into user experience not otherwise possible. By taking this approach, optimization of operator strategies as they relate to traffic management and service delivery is possible. When applied strategically, the granular control and user-centric analytics enabled by a device-based client provides new levels of creativity and service differentiation in an incredibly saturated market.

Editor’s Note: In an attempt to broaden our interaction with our readers we have created this Reader Forum for those with something meaningful to say to the wireless industry. We want to keep this as open as possible, but we maintain some editorial control to keep it free of commercials or attacks. Please send along submissions for this section to our editors at: dmeyer@rcrwireless.com.

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