Mobile World Congress: What is the future of Wi-Fi in an LTE-heavy landscape?

Telecoms Tech’s travels at Mobile World Congress earlier this week have involved reporting on everything from Mark Zuckerberg to operator strategies and the future of voice.

Yet the most popular story filed from Barcelona focused on a 5G panel featuring European Commission VP Neelie Kroes. Here, Tech Portfolio editor James Bourne looks at an alternate angle: where is the future of Wi-Fi in an LTE-heavy world?

Earlier this week, researchers at the University of Liverpool released a paper which claimed that Wi-Fi could spread a computer virus around like a “common cold.”

The academics created a prototype virus, dubbed ‘Chameleon’, which could reportedly avoid detection and detect the weakest parts of the network – those not protected by encryption and passwords.

Alan Marshall, professor of network security at the University of Liverpool, commented at the time: “Wi-Fi connections are increasingly a target for computer hackers because of well-documented security vulnerabilities, which make it difficult to detect and defend against a virus.

“It was assumed, however, that it wasn’t possible to develop a virus that could attack Wi-Fi networks but we demonstrated that this is possible and that it can spread quickly,” he added.

It feels like the same old story. While a lot of the press on 4G and 5G focuses on speed and rollouts, there’s yet more coverage on Wi-Fi whipping up a panic about security.

Dave Fraser is the CEO of Devicescape, a company which claims to offer the world’s largest Wi-Fi service platform through a curated virtual network (CVN).

He is firmly of the belief that Wi-Fi security worries are “completely and utterly a red herring.”

“I think it’s overblown in the extreme,” he tells Telecoms Tech. “It makes for interesting stories, and some sabre rattling about the horrors of public Wi-Fi, but the reality is that most sensitive information, almost all sensitive information is encrypted anyway.

He adds: “Your average application, certainly every single sensitive website, banking website or stock transaction website, will use SSL [secure sockets layer]. And it will use SSL because no matter what happens with the security of the access point, everything that happens after the access point across the internet is in plain text.

“So it makes no difference whatsoever whether the front end of the whole thing is unencrypted or not – it’s what happens across the entire session.”

Devicescape picked up the award for Best Use of Wi-Fi at the telecoms.com awards earlier in the week, so Fraser must be doing something right.

But whereas their solution focuses on virtualised Wi-Fi and the CVN, Hotspot 2.0 is a platform which is encrypted by default and utilises the IEEE 802.11u standard – in other words, a protocol which aims to ape cellular roaming.  

Steve Hratko, director of service provider marketing at Ruckus Wireless, believes 2014 is a vital year for Hotspot 2.0 where it could "start accelerating."

“It’s hugely interesting technology,” he explains. “APs from all the major vendors support it...all the major handset vendors now support it. Everything’s there, and we’re at the stage now where operators are starting to build up networks and partners.”

Ruckus works closely with Hotspot 2.0 deployment, and Hratko hopes for a future where Wi-Fi is as accessible as cellular.

The landscape has long been ripe. It’s no coincidence the MWC auditorium was packed for a conference session on the future of voice, and Hratko notes the difference with the Facebook generation.

“When you think about the younger demographic, they don’t make phone calls anyway,” he notes. “They need to be online all the time because they might not find out what their friend had for breakfast if they’re not.

“It’s that situation where they always want to be connected, they rarely if ever talk, and I think Hotspot 2.0 based networks could become very compelling,” he adds.

A potential problem is one of motivation; money makes the world go round and a monetisation model is far simpler for operators with 4G.

“The great thing about cellular is they’ve worked out relationships whereby you can roam on different networks wherever you are in the world, and by definition payments are involved,” Hratko explains.

“It’s going to be more challenging and interesting with Wi-Fi, because the beauty of cellular is that it’s a perfect vertical – [operators] all have a common goal in mind which is to sell minutes.

“Most of the heavy data usage worldwide comes in places like this,” he says, pointing at the expo floor. “Convention centres, airports, hotels, train stations – those are the people you want. There’ll certainly be situations where money will change hand, but most of the time it doesn’t.

This differentiation ensures that Wi-Fi and cellular shouldn’t compete with each other. Both Hratko and Fraser were keen to point this out.

“Wi-Fi does not ever replace cellular, you now just have two great networks that can enable the Facebook generation to always be connected wherever they are,” Hratko says, adding: “It’s been in process technically for a long time.”

Fraser adds: “The industry often refers to the type of thing that we do as Wi-Fi offload, and in actual fact Wi-Fi offload feels like a blunt instrument. It suggests that somehow there’s a derogatory issue with the cellular network.

“But it’s actually by using them together – and if you can use Wi-Fi and the cellular network together in a from that we’d call adaptive network selection, so you pick and choose the right network at the right time – then you can keep the customers always best connected.”

Devicescape is currently working on technology that aims to achieve just that in an unobtrusive and seamless manner. Watch this space for more on that, but for now both companies are working on their solutions to achieve total connectivity: in Devicescape’s case, it’s through switching between the Wi-Fi and the LTE, while for Ruckus it’s around removing the barriers for Wi-Fi roaming.

Fraser admits his company’s product is “a little bit unusual”, and hopes by the end of the year to have Tier-1 US carriers on-side, as well as expanding further into European geographies.

“Even though Wi-Fi has become almost accepted practice, virtualised Wi-Fi is still new,” he adds.

That's the key point. Wi-Fi has practically become accepted practice - and despite all these security scares, people still use it. It might be a case of ambivalence over vigilance, but as Fraser explains: "The fact is people continue to use public hotspots regardless anyway.

"In the States, where I interact with public hotspots all the time, the biggest public Wi-Fi network is AT&T and it’s completely unencrypted, and always has been forever. Your average Starbucks has always been that way as well, so I think security is overblown."

For Hratko, the key to the Wi-Fi puzzle is simplicity – as former iOS senior vice president Scott Forstall told him back in 2007.

Hratko recalls: “He said ‘you guys need to make Wi-Fi disappear.’ And what he meant by that was: don’t make people know about stuff. SSIDs, authentication – don’t do that. You just connect.

“That’s when you know a technology’s reliable because they don’t even know it’s there – they’re connected and it must be magic.

“It took me a while to work out what he meant by ‘make it disappear’,” Hratko admits, adding: “All I know is I now know what my friend had for breakfast.”

What vision do you imagine for the future of Wi-Fi?

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