June 30, 2014, 9:05 AM — San Francisco and San Jose are now at the cutting edge of another tech trend, and one that has nothing to do with smartwatches or social-media startups -- not directly, at least.
The two cities have geared up their free public Wi-Fi networks so users can automatically get on both after going through a one-time security step on either network. The capability went live earlier this month and is being officially announced on Monday.
The cities among the first Wi-Fi operators in the world to make their networks cooperate using the emerging Hotspot 2.0 standard. There's one big limitation, in that their deployment only works with a list of Apple iOS 7 and OS X Mavericks devices for now, but they will broaden device support in the future.
Hotspot 2.0 is intended to make it as easy to move between Wi-Fi networks as it is to roam from one cellular carrier to another. The Wi-Fi Alliance is certifying Hotspot 2.0 devices and infrastructure under the name Passpoint.
Hotspot 2.0 is still being used mostly by service providers, such as Boingo Wireless and Time Warner Cable, across networks of hotspots that they control. But the two cities at either end of Silicon Valley operate totally independent networks. They're pioneers in using a standard that eventually could allow all sorts of Wi-Fi hotspots to automatically give users secure connections.
Both cities' networks have been easy to get on from the beginning. San Jose started turning on free Wi-Fi last year, and it now has more than 400 access points working there and at its airport two miles away. San Francisco lit up its Wi-Fi along a three-mile stretch of its central Market Street late last year. Users don't have to give any information to use either network, just tap through a splash screen to agree to terms of service.
But while easy to use, the networks were also open and unencrypted. Both cities have now activated the Wi-Fi Alliance standard WPA2 Enterprise (Wi-Fi Protected Access) so visitors can choose to go onto Wi-Fi securely, with AES 256-bit encryption of their traffic. There's still no sign-up process, but the network sets configurations on the user's device so it can take advantage of WPA2. Along the way, each user is authenticated and authorized through a cloud-based service to use the network. From then on, whenever in range, the user's device will automatically get on.
The breakthrough with Hotspot 2.0 is that the one-time approval that takes place through one city's network automatically works in the other city, too. Once authorized in one city, a traveler will then automatically be online in either place without doing anything.