Today, Wi-Fi is the lowest-cost, highest-performance internet connection available, and its impact only continues to expand. It is generally accepted that by 2020, more than 25 billion devices will be running on Wi-Fi networks.
However, this growing number of devices still runs on “islands of Wi-Fi,” as users move between hot spots operated from different restaurants, stores, hotels, coffee shops and other public locations. To access the network, each user enters a new set of credentials. In each location, they must be approved, pay for the service, or be denied. And, as the number of Wi-Fi networks grows, so do the different types of authentication requirements.
Now, imagine a world where those “islands” no longer exist. Instead, consumers are automatically and securely signed on with the same set of credentials wherever they go – throughout the globe. It doesn’t matter what Wi-Fi network they use; they are recognized, verified and connected.
The good news is that the infrastructure already exists in the marketplace to enable this capability.
Introducing Federated identity management
Federated identity management (FIM) is a system in which applications and organizations rely on a common “federated” (information sharing) authority to manage the identity of each user. This form of access is now possible due to advances made in Microsoft Office 365, Google Docs, Facebook and other environments. Many users are already familiar with the signin process for various apps using their Facebook or Twitter identity. In a similar fashion, a “federated” login is now simplified and secured, allowing consumers to auto-connect to any public Wi-Fi network with the same credentials as long as all its applications trust the federated authority.
In this type of environment, users no longer need to worry about being compromised by connecting to many different Wi-Fi networks. Single sign-on systems were first launched through Microsoft’s Office 365 application as part of their educational laptop offering. Now they can be used by any consumer, based on social media or personally selected credentials.
Creating a seamless user experience
As a result, users enjoy a far more seamless onboarding experience. They are able to sign on immediately to the Wi-Fi network wherever they go – once they complete the first signon using their federated login credentials. In the case of a very questionable access request, they may need to respond to a second factor authentication request to validate their identity. However, with user data securely stored in a central trusted authority location, access is almost always granted immediately.
Until recently, most apps were not powerful enough to make a secure credential integration a success. However, more and more Wi-Fi vendors are partnering with cloud providers like Microsoft Azure and Google to scale. Based on these powerful partnership, a single sign-on into Azure, for example, will also put the user right onto the network and provide immediate access to multiple applications such as Box, Aha!, Salesforce, and other important business apps. Clearly, federated identify requires strong security policies for enterprises. However, new regulation is not required, since no PIN data is stored by the authentication services, only a username and password.
New access to consumer analytics
The Wi-Fi network operator also benefits from FIM on a number of different levels. Obviously, enabling secure, easy access to the internet supports better customer satisfaction and lowers network maintenance and management costs. The simpler infrastructure no longer needs network-specific authentication systems or captive portals.
Additionally, there are other new opportunities here. Companies increasingly want to be able to gather more analytics about their users. The use of federated social media credentials can provide high quality data on the user’s location, demographics, email address, social handle, schedule and other information about consumers who choose to opt in. Obviously, not every customer will do so, but Millenial and Gen Z consumers are increasingly open about sharing their personal data. For example, a Mintel study shows that if they receive special offers, at least 60 percent of Millenials will agree to share their personal data. Other forward-looking benefits of surround headless device users, devices such as wearables that comprise the IoT.
Based on these analytics, operators can tailor marketing campaigns, discounts and other types of promotions to each customer. For example, a coffee shop may offer airline travelers a coupon for stopping by at each travel stop. Hotels can target guests with the offer to upsell services, a special tour, or a free drink at the bar. Retailers may send out an offer for an associate to assist a shopper, a coupon for a special product, or an invitation to visit a new merchandising area.
Implementing the federated authority
Although secure federated access APIs are already in the market, implementation of federated authority is still a work in progress. A coordinated effort such as the Wi-Fi Alliance or the IEEE could make this a standard element of Wi-Fi networks across multiple vendors within 12-18 months.
So far, wireless providers do not communicate with each other trustingly enough to share federated identities and enable true worldwide access. However, it is not a new idea – today’s telecoms have been accepting the same global, numerical identity for users, regardless of location, for years. In the long term, the most likely solution is creation of a “super aggregator,” a non-profit, third-party organization (similar to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN), to unite the federated data of all wireless organizations into a single trusted source.