Wi-Fi enhancements make cell-phone costs clearer

Hotspot handoffs will be convenience, but not a patch on FMC

The vendor consortium that creates many of the specifications to which wireless networks comply is developing a new certification designed to allow customers to roam from one Wi-Fi hotspot to another in the same way they do when moving between areas controlled by different cell-phone towers. The Wi-Fi Alliance will announce today a set of business requirements that describe the market requirements for systems software that would scan local WLANs, pick the one with the best costs or policies and log in automatically in many cases, according to a story from InfoWorld's Stephen Lawson, who broke the news yesterday.

Cell-phone networks work in a similar way, on a much vaster scale. Rather than a hotspot hundreds of feet across, cell-phone towers could cover areas hundreds of miles in diameter. The towers track the location of each device connecting to their local network, then pass the identity, authentication, connection data and responsibility for the connection itself to routers in the next tower as a user passes from one cell to another.

The first version of the WiFi alliance software won't be quite that seamless, but may support SIM cards like those used in GSM-network phones and WPA2 wireless security, rather than being wide open, as many hotspots are now.

The goal is to make it easy enough on mobile users that they'll sign on to more networks, rather than bothering with credit cards, multiple logins and varying levels of security as they move from airport to airport when they're travelling, or one public space to another when they're on the move locally.

Making it easier to sign on to more than one hotspot in a day would be great, but it's still not a shadow on real fixed-mobile-conversion (FMC), the development project that was supposed to let end users make calls on cell networks or Wi-Fi, depending on which had the strongest signal, not which provider could make the most money from the call.

Handing off a phone call from a cell network on the sidewalk to an internal corporate WLAN as users walk into their office buildings would make the whole process far cheaper, more controllable and cost efficient for end-user companies. It wouldn't profit carriers much, if at all. So it went nowhere.

Hence, we're stuck hoping a patch on Wi-Fi software will make it a little easier to move from one tiny hotspot to another while we pay premium costs for cell service and duplicate costs for Wi-Fi.

By comparison, hotspot handoffs are a minor convenience.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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