Boingo turns Chicago’s O’Hare Airport into the world’s biggest Hotspot 2.0 testbed

Many of you may be toting around a Samsung Galaxy S4, which comes with a nifty new technology called Hotspot 2.0. As we’ve been writing for more than a year, Hotspot 2.0 and its sister Next-Generation Hotspot are supposed to make the task of connecting to a Wi-Fi hotspot seamless and automatic. But chances are your Galaxy S4 has never used that technology.

There are plenty of access points that have passed the Wi-Fi Alliance’s Passpoint and Wireless Broadband Alliance’s NGH certification programs, and with the release of iOS 7 this fall, several of the world’s most popular smartphones will support the seamless connection technology. But it seems that no one has actually turned Hotspot 2.0 capabilities on. We’re still connecting to hotspots the same login screens and specialized connection software we always have.


“It’s a chicken and egg problem,” said Christian Gunning, VP of corporate communications at Boingo(s wifi), one of the largest Wi-Fi hotspot service providers in the world. While Boingo has been upgrading its access points around the country to new Next-Gen Hotspot gear (in the process, it’s also been prepping its network for new 802.11ac technologies), it hasn’t actually activated the Hotspot 2.0 functions for the simple reason that not a single one of its carrier to Wi-Fi roaming partners is using it yet.

Carriers want to see more Passpoint-certified devices in the market before they commit to building out networks that will support them. Device vendors want to see carriers actually deploying Hotspot 2.0 and NGH gear before they go through the trouble of certifying their devices, Gunning said. The result is an industry stalemate.

Boingo, however, is trying to force the issue. This week it’s turning on Next-Gen Hotspot capabilities in its entire hotspot network in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, which comprises hundreds of individual Cisco Systems(s csco) access points. It’s then inviting mobile carriers – both its roaming customers and outsiders – and other hotspot service providers and device vendors to descend on the airport to test out the service for free.

O'Hare Boingo Hotspot SSID

Chicago is an ideal testbed due to its huge volume of travellers and big network footprint, and Boingo is an apt tester since it has roaming agreements with carriers worldwide. Sprint(s s), Verizon Business(s vz), AT&T(s t) (for international roaming), BT(s bt), Telefónica(s tef), Orange(s oran), TeliaSonera, Oi, Korea Telecom, Skype(s msft) and iPass(s ipas) all use Boingo’s Wi-Fi networks.

Most of them stand to benefit from Hotspot 2.0 as their customers could easily transition from cellular networks to Boingo’s access points without a hiccup, while maintaining secure encrypted connections. A Passpoint device automatically communicates its credentials to an NGH access point, which then passes its authentication request to the carrier. Once validated, the device connects to the hotspot just like it would connect to its owner’s secure home network.

“You have a WPA2 network connection before you even pull your device out of your pocket,” Gunning said.

Cisco Aironet access point

Cisco Aironet access point

Will Boingo’s gambit work? Gunning said the company is hopeful, but it’s ultimately up to the carriers to participate. And Boingo won’t commit to activating Hotspot 2.0 across its networks until at least one partner decides to take advantage of it. If that happens, though, Gunning said Boingo could make the changeover fairly quickly.

As a regular Joe traipsing through O’Hare’s terminals, you won’t see much transpire. In fact, if the trials are successful you won’t notice anything at all, except for perhaps better data performance at one of the world’s busiest airports. If your carrier opts to participate, then your device will simply connect to Boingo’s hotspot network as soon as an access point is in range and stay connected until you leave coverage or your carrier boots you off. It’s hardly thrilling, but not noticing is entirely the point.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Natalia Bratslavsky