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Boingo Launches First Next-Gen Hotspot at Chicago O’Hare

Wi-Fi-enabled devices are evolving to become more like cell phones, seamlessly roaming from hot spot to hot spot.  A milestone was achieved in this effort this month as Boingo Wireless launched the world’s first commercial Next Generation Hotspot Wi-Fi network at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

The network uses the PassPoint standard, which allows automatic network identification, authentication and encryption, and is now live and available for end-to-end testing by mobile carriers, Wi-Fi operators, and handset manufacturers, especially those already participating in the Wireless Broadband Alliance’s (WBA) Next Generation Hotspot trials.

“As one of the largest hot spots in the United States, Chicago O’Hare International Airport was chosen as the venue where PassPoint implementations could easily be tested,” Christian Gunning, Boingo Wireless spokesman, told DAS Bulletin.

“We are wrapping up the lab-based, end-to-end trials, designed to make sure that a PassPoint-enabled handset can communicate with a PassPoint enabled access point,” Gunning said. “We are now at the point that Wi-Fi roaming is a technical reality that is capable of being supported. We thought it was time to put it into space and make our lab publicly accessible.”

The PassPoint Protocol is a collaboration of the Wireless Broadband Alliance, the Wi-Fi Alliance and the GSMA.

“This is a significant step forward for the WBA’s Next Generation Hotspots vision becoming a commercial reality,” said Shrikant Shenwai, CEO for the Wireless Broadband Alliance. “Moving from the technical trials to major public hotspots provides more access to more members to test their implementations in real world conditions and should help the industry bring this to market in short order.”

The WBA coordinates Wi-Fi operator trials to facilitate seamless Wi-Fi roaming and offload based on several industry standards, as well as the WBA’s own interoperability compliance standards.  Along with Boingo, AT&T, British Telecom, China Mobile, KT, NTT DOCOMO, PCCW, Shaw Communications, Smart Communications and True all participate in the WBA Wi-Fi Roaming Interoperability Compliancy Program.

The Wi-Fi network at Chicago O’Hare uses equipment that has been Passpoint-certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance, allowing seamless network authentication even while roaming. Passpoint-certified mobile devices are able to automatically discover and connect to the best available network, using the latest in enterprise grade WPA2 security protection.

Carriers are looking for a standards-based method of doing Wi-Fi roaming, so they don’t have to implement custom software, according to Gunning.

“The goal is to create a seamless identification/authentication protocol that allows us to create the same experience on the Wi-Fi side of the wireless handset as there is on the cellular side,” he said. “Wi-Fi has a lot of the same issues concerning roaming as cellular does, different companies own the various networks; therefore it was necessary to have a set of standards.”

Carriers have an incentive to use PassPoint, which allows them to load-balance their networks, derive some of the cost efficiencies of Wi-Fi in public places, or dealing with congestion in crowded places, Gunning said.

Boingo operates on both sides of the DAS/Wi-Fi equation, sometimes operating both the DAS and Wi-Fi networks in the same venue.

“To a degree, there are some synergies between their ability to move traffic from the DAS to the Wi-Fi or from the Wi-Fi to the DAS network,” Gunning said. “It is a question of having the right combination of networks that help serve carriers’ purposes.”