Wi-Fi OpenRoaming: the Commercial Impetus

Chris Bruce, managing director, GlobalReach Technology

At the Wireless Global Congress, Summer webinar series, last week, I shared my perspective of the commercial impetus for the WBA’s OpenRoaming. As a Wi-Fi industry veteran I can see this is a clear game changer. It offers a frictionless and secure method of accessing potentially 500m public hotspots and the estimated two billion private enterprise locations globally.

The headlines are that it:

  • Radically lowers the barriers to entry: So enterprise can play
  • Creates methods and business incentives to standardise and automate to scale
  • Extends roaming to the enterprise Wi-Fi owner
  • Augments mobile network coverage, capacity and reach 
  • Adds value to social media, loyalty card and other ID providers

Using well-established building blocks (Wi-Fi Alliance Passpoint, WBA WRIX roaming, IEEE RCOI and Iana certificate based roaming) the WBA is now creating the methods for establishing and enforcing standards that will scale Wi-Fi roaming, exponentially.

But it’s not a free for all (literally or figuratively) both the mobile operator and the venue/enterprise controls the policy of who has access and under what conditions. The crucial difference is that OpenRoaming offers the security, data privacy, and methods that enable this to scale and perhaps more importantly the commercial incentives to do so.

Policy and security are central to the OpenRoaming framework the operators decide at which locations they wish to offload mobile traffic and venues can decide which operator or IDP (Identity Provider) may allow its users to access the Wi-Fi. This uses certificate-based roaming (PKI) and RadSec to enable the scaling of a multitude of venues to participate securely.

For the mobile operator this is about customer satisfaction, churn reduction, enhanced user experience. It can also help contain costs of extending the 4G network and smoothing the costs of 5G rollout. OpenRoaming helps mobile operators supplement coverage, reach, and capacity.

In city centres where increasing cellular capacity may have significant operational and cost challenges, one has to ask does it make sense for mobile operators to deploy high levels of cellular coverage to reach inside office buildings? Especially when a better suited, lower-cost technology exists in the form of Wi-Fi 6 and now a commercial model creates incentives to enterprise to offer up use of the fibre capacity to that building.

COVID 5G rethink? 

The economic impacts of COVID-19 are yet to fully play out but it seems clear that roll out plans in many areas will be reviewed. With 5G rollout cost stretching into $ billions for many operators and telco executives admitting that they do expect customers to pay a premium for it, then the cellular sector should think again. With the convergence of Wi-Fi 6 and 5G New Radio now likely to accelerate in the post COVID era it seems a better use of shareholder funds to use the best of both technologies as appropriate to the use case.

What?s in it for the traditional venue and how is this different from public Wi-Fi at traditional venues today? 

It’s all about the user experience ? as venues offer a frictionless experience to customers, fans, supporters, passengers, guests, this creates opportunities to promote their core products, services, and merchandise.

Let’s face it, good Wi-Fi is now considered a hygiene factor and user expectations are growing all the time, in terms of speed, ease of access, and security. Users don’t want unnecessary steps to register with each venue for Wi-Fi – it just gets in the way of their desire to be online. OpenRoaming merely achieves this end more effectively across a federation of venues and locations.

But what about the captive portal? 

Yes, that can still exist but it doesn’t have to be a mandatory hurdle. For venues that want to keep communicating with customers, GlobalReach can offer that within-session messaging – the user can still get on seamlessly but messages about accepting T&Cs offers or news can be sent as a system message – not as a hurdle to get online.

Many venues offer social media or a loyalty scheme log in from an IDP to provide the credentials for login and OpenRoaming simply standardises how this can be done and makes it easy for venues and IDPs to participate, depending on the policy they define.

As operators and IDPs enable their users to use OpenRoaming then this can bring footfall to venues, increased dwell time, and opportunities to sell core products and services. What’s more, there is an emerging opportunity to trade anonymised analytics between IDP and venue Wi-Fi owners to benefit both parties (with GDPR rules) around footfall analytics and other measures to maximise the customer experience of the venue.

Benefits for ‘carpeted’ enterprise (offices, visitor centres, operational buildings).

For private enterprise, this enables employees, contractors, visitors and suppliers to connect to Wi-Fi on premise, without the clunky admin. Relieve Front of House from managing Wi-Fi passwords and concentrate on delivering a reception experience which reflects well on the company.

By connecting the Wi-Fi authentication mechanism to the company’s Active Directory, then adds, moves and changes can flow through to enable authorised users to access the Wi-Fi. GlobalReach manages identities using an anonymous and secure CUI (Chargeable User Identity). The identity verification is performed by the IDP and Global Reach enforces the policy accordingly (without access to the individual’s information).

Of course some locations may be of interest to the operators for mobile offload and so the venue may secure a fee to help cover costs of under-utilised back-haul to the site, but the main aim is to offer a secure and professional way for visitors and staff to connect to Wi-Fi removing the admin overhead.

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OpenRoaming radically reduces the time to onboard new roaming partners or venues from many months to hours or even minutes. In this way, the number of venues will grow exponentially from the hundred today to thousands and even millions globally.

It is interesting to see the federated roaming communities in education and health also showing interest in this initiative – so that communities members may access Wi-Fi at, for example, universities or hospitals for free but other users external to the community may have to pay. In this way, the policy can be managed across federations and venues for different identity types.

Wi-Fi roaming can emerge from its Cinderella-like position to rival mobile roaming and come to the ball, as the way users move seamlessly from one network to another. Wi-Fi already carries more than 70% of the world’s mobile data traffic, it’s about time we adopted a methodology that matches the way we lead our lives and roam without friction.

I call on enterprise venues, identity providers, and telco operators to join me on this journey. Deliver a better user experience and explore the commercial benefits of doing so.

  • WBA OpenRoaming https://wballiance.com/openroaming-faqs/ GlobalReach at https://globalreachtech.com/globalreach-supports-openroaming/
  • Chris Bruce is Managing Director, GlobalReach Technology, and a member of the Board of the WBA for 10 years (representing GlobalReach and previously BT). Chris was previously CEO, BT Openzone, and VP, BT Global Services.