Hotspot 2.0 inches its way into public Wi-Fi networks

A curious thing happened to me on the way back from Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week. When I stepped out of the plane at O’Hare Airport in Chicago, my phone automatically connected to the terminal’s Wi-Fi network.

That may not sound like an earth-shattering event, but I should note that I have never accessed that network before with my phone, so it had no saved profile. I also had no special ISP connection software on my device that would let me automatically authenticate to the access point. I didn’t need to select a network from a list, nor did I have to enter a password or interact with my phone in any way. The signal strength bars on my iPhone 5(s aapl) just changed into Wi-Fi’s familiar radiating fan, and I had a secure connection online.

Chicago O'Hare Airport sign

My phone made its first Hotspot 2.0 connection courtesy of Boingo(s wifi). Through an over-the-air update, Boingo had configured iOS 7’s Passpoint settings so it would automatically connect to its networks in 20 airports around the country.

Boingo actually runs 700,000 hotspots globally, making the airport project a very limited trial. Right now it’s testing the technology with its own customers and its numerous Wi-Fi roaming partners, but that one little seamless connection my phone made gives us a pretty good indication of what will happen when Hotspot 2.0 finally launches commercially around the world.

The many owners of Wi-Fi

Chances are your mobile carrier operates a good deal of Wi-Fi access points in high-traffic locations like arenas and commercial zones. In addition, your carrier likely has deals with numerous wireless ISPs to expand its hotspot reach (Verizon(s vz), AT&T, and Sprint(s s) all work with Boingo to some degree, for instance). And more often than not, those hotspot networks aren’t integrated networks, but aggregated collections of access points operated by multiple organizations and businesses.

Boingo  Passpoint

There’s really no such thing as unified Wi-Fi network in the world of public access like you would see in an enterprise or at home, and that means that connecting to the networks can be a pain — you have to deal with SSIDs and browser login screens, usernames and passwords, and connection manager apps.

Hotspot 2.0 and its access point technology counterpart Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) are supposed to eliminate that hassle, letting your phone or tablet connect to these public Wi-Fi networks just the way they would at your home or office through a secure WPA2 connection. Instead of the hotspot recognizing your credentials, authentication is done in the cloud. As far as your phone is concerned, the world becomes one big home network — you’re just sharing it with a few million other people.

Long overdue promises

The Wi-Fi Alliance began certifying Hotspot 2.0 capable devices under its Passpoint program in the summer of 2012, and hotspot providers began installing NGH software into their access points last year, but none of them have actually offered the feature commercially. So far, we’ve only seen trials.

Ruckus Zone Flex Wi-Fi access point

At Mobile World Congress last week, Cisco Systems(s csco) and Accuris Networks worked with a boatload of global carriers — including AT&T(s t), China Mobile(s chl) and NTT Docomo(s dcm) — to launch a large-scale Hotspot 2.0 in the halls of the Fira Gran Via, allowing their customers to connect via Passpoint phones. The Wireless Broadband Alliance has conducted similar trials at other conferences. That’s all great, but when will people beyond telecom conference attendees actually be able to use this technology?

In the next three months, said Selina Lo, CEO of Ruckus Wireless(s rkus), one of the world’s largest providers of outdoor hotspot gear. At MWC, Ruckus announced its first commercial deployment of Hotspot 2.0 with Orange(s oran) in Warsaw’s Royal Gardens in Poland. That may just be one park, but it’s a foothold. The mobile industry has started sorting out the problems with Hotspot 2.0 and they’re getting ready to roll out the technology commercially, Lo said.

“In the next 90 days, you’ll start seeing it in a number of public networks,” Lo said.

O’Hare photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Natalia Bratslavsky