Wireless Broadband Alliance backs wifi roaming to tackle digital divide

For a technology which has been around for a while, few breakthroughs seem to occur in the wifi world, but tackling wifi roaming the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) believes the digital divide can be narrowed.

With World Wifi Day taking place this week, it seemed like a perfectly appropriate time to catch-up with Tiago Rodrigues, General Manager of the Wireless Broadband Alliance to discuss the work taking place to take wifi to the next level. Despite being a critical component of the connectivity ecosystem, public wifi has never seemed to meet expectations, Rodrigues hopes this is going to change in the future.

“Wifi is a technology which has the potential to connect the unconnected and close the digital divide,” Rodrigues said.

The main issue here seems to be customer experience. Public wifi is clunky, frustrating and cumbersome. Many users, your correspondent included, choose to turn off wifi on devices while out and about, relying on 4G for a more reliable experience. For those who have unlimited or generous data tariffs this is a perfectly feasible option, though for some, it is not. Clearly something needs to be done. Rodrigues points to wifi roaming as one of the ways to improve the experience.

Here is the scenario. When you leave the office, you disconnect from the private wifi and enter the big wide world of connectivity options. When you walk into the pub, you have to sign-up to access the wifi, or resign in. The same process has to be done when you get on the tube back home, and also for the public wifi when you hit the high street. The handover between networks is not consistent, not seamless and not user friendly. This is where the WBA is directing one of its projects.

Rodrigues asks why users can’t have one set of credentials which can grant access to public wifi networks across the world. Why shouldn’t you be able to sign-in in London, but then use a network in Barcelona, or even as you move from Hackney to Fitzrovia? The same handover theory can be applied to mobile broadband so why not wifi connections?

Trials have already been taking place in New York, a city which has more than 15 public wifi networks around the city, and also in Barcelona this year during Mobile World Congress. Rodrigues said in Barcelona more than 20,000 people connected to public wifi, though only signed-in once. Devices were automatically connected to wifi at the Fira, or in downtown Barcelona, and at the airport. The user experience was improved and there were also benefits for the city as well.

The data which was collected by the city was also shared with the local police force for example, to aid with more proactive patrols. For example, should an unusually large number of people be connected to a single site, it might indicate some nefarious activity and warrant investigation. Such insight can help the police force be more efficient in patrolling the streets. The data can also be used to track movement of people around the city, aiding city planners with transport infrastructure. It is the smart city dream coming real.

Of course, in light of very public scandals, privacy is a key point to raise. Rodrigues said the user will be known to the owner of the network which provided the initial credentials, geo-location data can be assigned to individual users, but when roaming onto guest networks, the records would be anonymised. The guest network would gain the insight and therefore the data, though the user will remain protected and the networks remain compliant under GDPR. With new ePrivacy Regulations set to build on GDPR next year, Rodrigues does not foresee any additional complications, though who knows when it comes to the temperamental European Commission.

Question regarding the performance of public wifi have not been addressed here, but the WBA does seem to be tackling an area of frustration for the user. It’s a useful step forward.