Wi-Fi Passpoint standard now knits together SF, San Jose, London

The specification helps users join secure networks automatically

A partnership that lets Wi-Fi users get on free public networks in San Francisco and San Jose, California, with a one-time joining process now also covers a hotspot along the River Thames in London.

The cities at either end of Silicon Valley used the Wi-Fi Alliance's Passpoint specification to set up Wi-Fi roaming between their city-owned networks earlier this year. The technology lets residents and visitors set up a secure connection with either network and then automatically get on the other city's system whenever they enter its coverage area.

It's an arrangement that makes a lot of sense between the two cities: They're both home to major tech companies and are commuting distance apart. Adding in a river halfway around the world may seem like a stretch, but for travelers, the easy access to Wi-Fi across borders could be a nice convenience -- and a sign of things to come.

The Thames network spans 44 kilometers (27 miles) of riverfront in the London area, with access points both along the shore and on ferries. Access to the network is included with free Wi-Fi that's bundled with broadband plans from carrier BT.

Passpoint is a standard for automating and securing most aspects of getting onto Wi-Fi networks. It can eliminate the need to enter a username or password to join a Passpoint Wi-Fi network, even the first time you get on. To join a network initially, users only have to use a one-time provisioning file. After that, they automatically get on that network and on those of all roaming partners.

A second release of the specification, introduced this month, is designed to make the initial joining process even simpler and more secure. There are more than 700 devices and infrastructure products certified for Passpoint, including iOS and Android devices.

Backers of Passpoint envision consumers moving from one Wi-Fi network to another wherever they go, in the same way they automatically roam among cellular carriers today. But Wi-Fi network operators are just beginning to activate the technology, which can require new or modified infrastructure. Worldwide, there are 12 live commercial deployments of the underlying technology, called Next Generation Hotspot, according to the Wireless Broadband Alliance.

The grouping of the Thames network with San Francisco's and San Jose's is no accident. All three networks use infrastructure from Ruckus Wireless and back-end technology from Global Reach, a Wi-Fi software and services company in London. But with Passpoint, networks that want to offer roaming among them don't all have to use the same vendors, according to the standard's supporters. San Francisco CIO Miguel Gamino says the city was approached by people from the Thames network and that other municipalities have also asked about joining in, Gamino said.

Using Passpoint across oceans and borders is no great technical feat, said Farpoint Group analyst Craig Mathias. But that doesn't mean universal free Wi-Fi will take the place of expensive cellular roaming.

"If we wanted to connect the whole world into Passpoint, we could," Mathias said. But where the technology is the same everywhere, the way services are packaged and paid for will vary, he said. Carriers, network operators and hotspot aggregators will continue to compete as they do now, sometimes with free access and sometimes with paid. "You'll see all kinds of hybrids," Mathias said.

One limitation of the roaming setup is that the fully streamlined user experience is only available on Apple iOS and OSX devices, according to Ruckus. Users can easily go from one network to another on some Samsung devices, too, but only those with SIM cards, said David Wright, technical director for Ruckus's carrier business. With non-SIM devices such as tablets, the process is more complicated. That's because OS support is still limited: Passpoint is included in iOS but not yet in Android or Windows, Wright said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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