Last week I visited New York where something of a success story is happening.
The city’s LinkNYC kiosks, located across five boroughs provide super-fast, free public Wi-Fi, along with other services, for millions of residents, commuters and tourists each day. Latest public figures show that the 1,800 kiosks were seeing up to 20 million sessions from registered users, a week and some two billion sessions since launch, where users had munched through some 12 petabytes (12,300 terabytes) of data – that’s a lot of smartphone mobile data!
But the success story isn’t free public Wi-Fi done at scale, although in a city the size of New York that’s impressive enough itself, it’s the benefits of the Passpoint service which is a significant secret sauce in the LinkNYC user experience, but of which most end users are probably unaware.
The potential is to go further and help mobile operators offload user sessions and data to a street kerbside Wi-Fi network with fibre to the Kiosk with multi-gigabit speed connections. In a congested city like New York where cell towers are at a very high roof level, this adds real wireless coverage and capacity improvements with all the social, economic, and efficiency benefits it can bring.
LinkNYC users are able to roam securely and seamlessly between kiosks without having to log in again. When they’re in range of a kiosk, their devices are connected due to a profile they’ve previously downloaded or is already provisioned on their sim card. It’s a less frustrating, more productive user experience and the way that we should be using Wi-Fi.
Beyond New York City, this cellular-like user experience is the reason why Passpoint services are in high demand. In 2019 they’ve been showcased to delegates at events including the Wireless Broadband Global Congress in Atlanta (and upcoming) in Frankfurt and significantly at the world’s largely cell-fest, Mobile World Congress, Barcelona. in the MWC Fira Exhibition Centre (with 100k+ visitors) and at other key points in a joined up traveller journey (El Prat international airport, main train stations, key outdoor areas and selected hotels), with a profile installed, the user can seamlessly connect to Wi-Fi in all these locations.
Passpoint is also used by hotels, train operators, coffee chains and in other city centres, to give users a better, seamless Wi-Fi experience. I am aware of an upcoming Central London deployment that will include Passpoint as part of a new network providing coverage at well-known tourist locations. Visitors with the Passpoint profile already on their devices will be automatically connected as soon as they’re within range of an enabled hotspot. There will be no need for them to log in again or sign-up.
It’s a great user experience that surprises and delights, improves user satisfaction, and can also be used as a channel for the brand or local authority to improve communication with users. Moreover, with security in mind, Passpoint employs an encrypted radio link from the handset to Wi-Fi access point.
GlobalReach put the first major municipal Passpoint service in place making user roaming possible in San Francisco and San Jose back in 2014, and we are involved in similar projects to overlay Passpoint onto other international Wi-Fi services today. Imagine if every major international city did that.
To these early adopters, Passpoint Wi-Fi is a complementary service to cellular services for a long list of reasons including cost, capacity, speed, management ease, better indoor performance, and more flexible traffic management. However, it’s with the announcement of Hotspot 2.0 Release 3 capabilities, which GlobalReach as a contributor to the standard, has made available now), that things have started to get very interesting.
The new capabilities introduce advanced policy management which means that Wi-Fi service providers and enterprises can consider more sophisticated commercial opportunities to monetise their Passpoint Wi-Fi services. Rather than think about their networks as one-dimensional guest Wi-Fi services, adding advanced policy management, transforms them into carrier-grade Wi-Fi, which is attractive to cellular operators for coverage infill (in areas such as indoor locations where cellular performance is weak), roaming to expand a coverage estate (and the loyalty and retention benefits that deliver) and for 3G/4G traffic offload.
This is already happening. Capacity Media reported earlier this month that a major 5G and private Wi-Fi network will integrate to provide indoor coverage with the benefit to 5G network operators that future services could be extended into buildings and integrated with secure private networks built to the new Wi-Fi 6 standard for which leading equipment vendors have already announced products and the Wi-Fi Alliance (www.wi-fi.org) announced its Wi-Fi 6 certification programme this month.
Meanwhile, the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), with its eco-system of Wi-Fi and cellular operators and the Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) Alliance, which represents mobile network operators has produced their findings on how 5G new radio and Wi-Fi 6 might work together in a converged platform to optimise the user experience and manage the cost of deploying a new network infrastructure.
Network convergence use cases like this elevate Wi-Fi services to a valuable asset that service providers and enterprises can use to negotiate access deals with cellular operators to recoup and offset the costs of building and managing these high-performance services – particularly for indoor environments which are unlikely to be the priority for 5G coverage for cellular operators.
Passpoint has also created a new financial opportunity for these cellular operators. Demand for networks is so high, that we are now involved in strategic discussions about how to use carrier-grade Wi-Fi as a way to manage RAN (Radio Access Network) CAPEX and OPEX expenditure.
These discussions run deeper than Wi-Fi offload. In our experience taking data off a cellular network doesn’t necessarily free up the cellular network. In many places, user demand for data consumption is so much that the network simply fills up again with more traffic. We’re talking about using PasspointWi-Fi as an opportunity to better manage this traffic, setting policies about the type of traffic that will use which network, according to its priority, user demographic, value to the user, etc.
Because of the relatively lower cost of Wi-Fi, this is a significant step towards controlling operators’ infrastructure costs. Moreover, if traffic is managed effectively, user satisfaction can be improved, so helping with churn management for cellular data subscriptions.
Wi-Fi offload used to be the industry’s elephant in the room but as Wi-Fi and 5G convergence become commonplace, operators’ Passpoint deployments are to be applauded. They’re making capital out of new technology which is beneficial for operators, vendors, and end-users. My long-held view is that operators need to focus more on their customers’ actual experience and less on the technology that they deploy i.e. mobile data access, over whichever network technology best meets the customer need and the optimal cost.
At the end of the month, I’ll be at the Wireless Broadband Alliance’s Wireless Global Congress in Frankfurt, where I look forward to some lively Wi-Fi 6 / 5G convergence discussions where the opportunity of Passpoint will be front and centre.