Why Operators Will Value Access to Wi-Fi Networks

Why Federated Roaming is An Untapped Commercial Opportunity for Enterprises

Chris Bruce, managing director, GlobalReach Technology

Recently I presented on a joint webinar for the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) and Hospitality Technology Next Generation (HTNG), for both of which, GlobalReach is a leading contributor.  I discussed the opportunity for brands and enterprises to allow mobile operators’ subscribers to roam seamlessly onto their Wi-Fi networks. In the Q&A that followed, I was asked whether operators will pay for access to Wi-Fi networks?  It’s something I’m often asked in meetings with different types of organisations, from cities to train operators. 

This month I’ve presented again at the WBA’s Autumn Congress and at TrainComms, a specialist event for connectivity in the rail industry. It’s clear that there’s skepticism to a real and proven commercial opportunity and one where GlobalReach is making agreements between Wi-Fi estate owners and operators every month. That’s why it makes sense to make it clear as to why operators will pay.

The simple answer is yes they will (and already are paying). For those that are sceptical, I recommend that you look again. 

Technologically, Wi-Fi 6 (and even Wi-Fi 5) has grown up to be more carrier-grade: predictable quality of service and performance levels that match or exceed many characteristics of 5G New Radio (especially indoors).  Economically, it does not make sense for mobile operators to build cellular networks indoors when there is a ready-made ‘partner’ available in the form of Wi-Fi. Multi-path and other convergence technologies are ensuring handoff between cellular to Wi-Fi without user intervention.

Wi-Fi is now widely seen to be a universal public utility. If the pandemic has taught us anything, we are all now more aware of the impact of being unable to access information, to connect with others, to work, and to learn. Often different stakeholder groups have been alienated since lockdown without internet access, and we’ve had a steady flow of enquiries from public sector bodies looking to quickly set up services to connect the unconnected. 

However, even in setting up these free-to-user networks, there is a commercial cost for the enterprise. Federated Wi-Fi roaming is a sharing economy model that makes it possible for venue owners to recoup some of these costs. Typically, there is underutilised capacity sitting in enterprise networks and on the other side, pent up demand from operators who may not have the capacity or coverage to serve their subscribers as well as they’d like with existing cellular networks.  

Wi-Fi roaming models bring together people who want to save money (operators) with people who want to make money (enterprises). The goods news is that this applies whether you’re a hotel, a shopping mall, a train station, a truck stop, a library or a city centre.

What are they paying for?

For the mobile operator, having access to high-performance Wi-Fi networks is about customer satisfaction, churn reduction, and delivering an enhanced user experience. Offloading their subscribers’ traffic to a carrier grade Wi-Fi network can also help contain costs of extending the 4G network and can smooth the cost of rolling out a 5G network. 

Mobile operators want to use their own cellular networks when they can, and to have to choose to use Wi-Fi where cellular technologies may have significant operational and cost challenges. We should ask, does it make sense for mobile operators to deploy expensive cellular coverage to reach inside office buildings or to provide street-level coverage in dense urban environments, when Wi-Fi 6 is now available as a better suited, lower-cost technology?

Realising the commercial model

Commercial models are now being actively used by mobile operators to help them to meet the demand for a superior user experience. In our experience as an IDP (identity provider), operators want to make agreements with enterprises and brands and to differentiate their customers’ service quickly, without complex technical architecture conversations.  In this COVID-impacted year we have already seen some 500m Passpoint transactions as we enable offload and roaming from cellular to Wi-Fi from profiles stored on the user’s device. 

To make this a reality, today’s commercial models now create incentives for the enterprise to offer up use of the fibre capacity to that estate and be compensated by operators as a seamless transaction. Through our own roaming and offload service, we introduce and support various different stakeholders throughout the roaming agreement from carriers to specific brands and venues, to other hub partners and industry associations.

The emergence of federated roaming in 2020 looks set to make Wi-Fi roaming a reality on a massive scale at last. WBA OpenRoaming with its vision, made possible through industry standards and technical enablement, is set to help mobile operators to supplement their requirements for additional coverage and capacity, and allow enterprises and brands to join, unlocking their networks and user demand. 

As with any federation you need critical mass. The strength of WBA OpenRoaming and other federated approaches, such as Google Orion, is the standardised agreements, the ease of use driven in part by integration with such platforms as Cisco DNA Spaces. This straightforward low-touch approach opens up the possibility of interconnection with established federations like EDURoam or GOVRoam,  and will help federated roaming adoption to grow rapidly, reaching a tipping point where the operators and enterprises will naturally prefer these agreements in the foreseeable future.  

Does the enterprise lose control and ownership?

This is an important question. Wi-Fi roaming is not open season. By making their networks available to mobile operators, enterprises and brands do not have to cede control. In fact, they choose which operators or IDPs get to connect to their Wi-Fi network.

Although the mobile operator will choose to connect with a site or brand, the venue owner decides who they want to give seamless access to and under which conditions.  For example, in an OpenRoaming scenario, they could mandate that they have a certain amount of bandwidth to give their own customers priority over bandwidth and experience.

As an IDP, GlobalReach helps to define and to control the policy as to who has access to the service and what for. We can create the user profiles and manage those identities within the roaming framework. We can also act as the datastore (or connect to the enterprise’s datastore such as a hotel rewards app, a customer database, a rail season ticket etc).

It is true though that WBA OpenRoaming introduces seamless access and this calls into question the role of the captive portal. Most users do not actually want to insert their details or accept T&C in exchange for Wi-Fi access. They do understand that there is a trade for ‘free Wi-Fi’.  This brings in the dilema – do you satisfy the user’s need for speedy access to the internet or place hurdles in the way to monetise the experience or engage with the user?  

My suggestion is to get the user connected as easily as possible but then message a different way. 

Venues can also maintain their customer relationships, even using a frictionless Passpoint Wi-Fi user experience. Passpoint venues can still message users once they are connected by presenting an in-session, on-screen message that can direct customers to a webpage for messaging, engagement and upsell.  In this way the ‘attachment rate’ to Wi-Fi increases significantly, the user satisfaction increases removing friction at the venue and involving your staff and with in-session messaging venues may even be able to engage with more customers than by forcing them through the captive portal route.

The opportunity for Wi-Fi roaming is now 

It’s possible that many brands are unaware of the untapped potential of their Wi-Fi estate. That’s realistic when you consider that, as far as roaming is concerned, the cellular industry has had long-established technical standards to make roaming between networks work.

For the Wi-Fi industry, although Passpoint is a mature technology that has been available since 2014, the frameworks, policy and federation structures needed to make secure on-boarding and roaming work at scale, have only emerged recently. 

The WBA is now bringing together existing technologies (Passpoint, EAP, Discovery), combining it with its own XRIX roaming standards and security and onboarding methods for IDPs, operators and venues.

WBA OpenRoaming is making it easy for all stakeholders to comply with the framework and therefore to easily build bilateral agreements.

In the few short months since launch, we have already felt the acceleration from mobile operators looking to broker these deals. That’s why the commercial opportunity is now for enterprises and brands to unlock their Wi-Fi bandwidth for the benefit of all.

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