Wi-Fi roaming will make mobile operators connectivity providers

While mobile operators are increasingly relying on Wi-Fi to augment their cellular networks, it’s still a lesser tool in their toolbox. But in the coming year, Wi-Fi is going to play a more vital role for carriers turning operators from providers of cellular voice and data to purveyors of connectivity.

That’s the prediction of Bob Friday, the CTO of wireless for Cisco (s csco), who is helping push this vision along. Cisco is a major driver behind Hotspot 2.0, an initiative that will use 802.11u, WPA2-Enterprise and EAP-based authentication to create easy Wi-Fi roaming for devices looking to move from cellular networks onto Wi-Fi networks or between Wi-Fi networks. Essentially, it will bring the ease of cellular roaming to Wi-Fi, something Stacey has written about before.

“The vision is to bring cellular-like authentication to Wi-Fi. Hotspot is trying to be the SIM card for Wi-Fi. We’re trying to bring connectivity to the general public,” Friday said.

This kind of roaming, Friday said, will make Wi-Fi a much more versatile tool for wireless operators because it will greatly simplify the way people jump onto Wi-Fi networks. He said by automating the authentication process, tying user identity to a SIM card and making it seamless for users, their devices can easily shift over to Wi-Fi networks without having to enter in credentials. And that will help transfer the data traffic burden on to Wi-Fi while giving users a better experience indoors and at crowded venues.

But it could also allow carriers to charge their users for access to Wi-Fi. That’s something we’ve talked of before, and it remains a potential byproduct of easier Wi-Fi roaming. Carriers, as they do with cellular roaming, could charge users when they jump on to other networks and track their usage using their SIM card. Friday said it’s possible that users would pay to roam on international Wi-Fi networks, but he wasn’t sure that would be the case domestically, if carriers signed agreements between each other. But it could be another source of revenue for carriers interested in bolstering their bottom line.

In the larger picture, Wi-Fi will become a much more valuable weapon in their arsenal and along with femto cells and small cells, will make them focus on delivering broader connectivity, regardless of the technology. Through their own Wi-Fi networks and roaming agreements with other Wi-Fi network providers and owners of hotspots, the operators can better construct a comprehensive system that keeps their users connected. Users will not only be able to jump on to Wi-Fi networks seamlessly but they’ll also be able to move between Wi-Fi networks.

The Wi-Fi Alliance and Wireless Broadband Alliance in June announced plans to collaborate on developing Hotspot 2.0 to ease Wi-Fi roaming. Trials are being conducted this year with further testing and a rollout expected to take place in the first half of next year, Friday said.

It’s unclear if all the operators will sign on, which would undercut the usefulness of Hotspot 2.0. Japan’s KDDI is already pursuing its own proprietary solution with a network that utilizes seamless switching between the cell sites and 100,000 Wi-Fi hotspots with a WiMAX overlay. Other companies are also putting together their own tools to help with Wi-Fi roaming. But Friday believes operators will be motivated to wait for Hotspot 2.0 to achieve a more comprehensive roaming system.

“It’s in the interest of the operators (to support Hotspot 2.0). It’s the same drive for cellular authentication that will drive them to Wi-Fi authentication,” Friday said.

This is going be key especially with the explosion of Wi-Fi hotspot use. In-Stat recently estimated that by  2015, wireless hotspots will account for nearly 120 billion connect sessions. And by 2013, there will be one million hotspot locations available. With so many hotspots available, having a comprehensive program to ensure easy roaming will facilitate the kind of sharing that has helped cellular operators. And it will mean more utility for users, who will have fewer restrictions in moving between Wi-Fi networks.

And just like KDDI is already proving, carriers will increasingly operate more heterogeneous networks that utilize a handful of technologies to connect users. It makes sense for the carriers to stay on top of exploding data traffic and it gives users a better experience and potentially more lower prices. The only questions are will the operators wait around for Hotspot 2.0 or pursue their own solution now? And will they charge for all this additional Wi-Fi service?