T-Mobile commits to Passpoint automatic Wi-Fi access; other U.S. carriers mum

AT&T's access to 30,000 Wi-Fi hotspots is proprietary

Of the nation's four biggest wireless carriers, only T-Mobile USA has revealed plans to deploy Passpoint, a technology that would allow wireless users to automatically access Wi-Fi hotspots from carriers' 3G and 4G cellular networks.

Certification of Passpoint on network gear and end-user devices, such as smartphones and tablets, begins in June, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance, which coordinated development of Passpoint, based on the Hotstop 2.0 specification, over the past two years.

When a carrier commits to Passpoint-certified devices and gear, its users will be able to seamlessly access Wi-Fi hotspots without a setup process or password, as long as the hotspots are also certified and permit access. Having Passpoint capability could drastically reduce the end-user cost of browsing and streaming video by using free or low-cost Wi-Fi instead of paying for data service plans over 3G or 4G cellular networks, analysts said.

Once multiple carriers use Passpoint globally, or even within the U.S., a smartphone or tablet user could easily roam on to more Wi-Fi hotspots than with a single cellular carrier. If T-Mobile adds the Passpoint capability in the U.S., it's possible that T-Mobile customers would gain access only to hotspots that T-Mobile controls or has set up for partnerships to use.

Mobile device users want streamlined access to hotspots like those that Passpoint would offer, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance. A poll of 1,001 U.S. tablet and smartphone users found that 70% would switch cellular providers if it meant they could access seamless Wi-Fi connections. The poll, sponsored by the alliance and released Tuesday, also found that 72% of those users would pay more for automatic Wi-Fi connections.

A T-Mobile spokesman said once the Passpoint certification process starts, "we expect that our Connection Manager on our devices will leverage Passpoint as an authentication mechanism." T-Mobile has been a member of the Wi-Fi Alliance board and has helped develop Passpoint since 2009, she said.

The other three major U.S. carriers, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless, didn't rule out adopting Passpoint eventually, but refused to elaborate on their plans when asked by Computerworld. All three already have capabilities in most, if not all, of the phones they sell to find nearby Wi-Fi hotspots, with the ability to automatically connect after the first time a password is used.

Even though equipment providers such as Ruckus Wireless are expected to show support for Passpoint technology at CTIA this week in New Orleans, analysts said there's not much incentive for a wide number of carriers to move ahead with the technology right away, nor are there many devices that support it.

Passpoint is "pretty much a future dream at this point," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J.Gold Associates. "It's unlikely there will be universal networks that you can roam against. There are probably no phones out there right now that do this ... I don't think it can happen quickly."

Gold noted it took years for roaming between carriers to occur over cellular networks.

AT&T operates nearly 30,000 Wi-Fi hotspots in the U.S., and its customers can use those hotspots at no added charge without having to enter a password. Regarding Passpoint, a spokesman said AT&T "can't speculate on the future."

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