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

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A Verizon Wireless spokeswoman said, "We do not have Passpoint on our phones today, but are aware of the Wi-Fi Alliance and its ongoing work." Verizon customers can "easily find, connect and use a Wi-Fi network when desired," she said, and can set phones to make automatic connections to a Wi-Fi network (once a password, if needed, is provided) or can be notified each time to provide consent.

A Sprint spokesman said: "We are exploring all the options available to maintain our networks' performance at optimal levels, but have nothing to share at this time about specific services." Sprint's phones have similar Wi-Fi capabilities to those of the other carriers.

Passpoint poses a dilemma for Sprint and other carriers around the globe that have wireless spectrum capacity and want to attract more customers to their networks. These carriers would not see much value in having their customers roam to free Wi-Fi, analysts noted. Sprint is the only major U.S. carrier to offer unlimited data plans today.

But Sprint falls into a distinct minority, some experts said, since most carriers are interested in finding ways to relieve cellular network congestion, such as by offloading traffic to Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi Alliance CEO Edgar Figueroa said Passpoint is popular among the 30 carriers in the alliance, which includes AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon, but not Sprint.

"A number of carriers are tracking Passpoint and adopting trials, preparing to roll it out," Figueroa said, although he wouldn't name specific carriers. "Operators have every incentive to support Passpoint. They'd rather use Wi-Fi than wireless spectrum."

Figueroa said Passpoint's greatest potential is in providing users with smooth Wi-Fi handoff capability, regardless of the carrier, when roaming in another country or in the U.S.

"Passpoint would be a big benefit if moving about in your own city, or getting to the airport or a restaurant," he added. "Today, each area of a hotspot has a different logon and the experience is very different, but all that will go away with Passpoint, automatically."

Figueroa said the Passpoint certification process relies upon interoperability across carriers globally. He said he didn't know what AT&T might do with its own proprietary approach to hotspot offloading to free hotspots, or whether AT&T might cooperate with other carriers.

In a statement, the alliance said: "It would be possible for a proprietary solution to accomplish similar functionality to Passpoint, but only on an operator's own network with a specific set of equipment ...The long-term view of Passpoint's value is that as a standard solution available on multiple operator networks and a wide diversity of equipment, it is an essential element of realizing the 'cellular-like' experience while roaming, [including] access to the services of your home provider while connecting through a partner's hotspot. This would also give providers the ability to reach their subscribers [in] more places, including in their home, and more options about how to provide services short of building their own networks."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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