iPass has tech in beta to solve Wi-Fi's most irritating problem

Trying to connect to a Wi-Fi spot can be an exercise in frustration depending on your device and carrier and even where you might be standing

It is another day, another partnership for iPass, a global provider of commercial Wi-Fi that is on a mission to stitch together a global network of hotspots for users. The announcement du jour is a partnership with Devicescape, which has more than 20 million hotspots around the world. Or rather, it is the latest announcement as I write this — in a conversation with CEO Gary Griffiths, he hinted to me that another deal might also be announced on the heels of this one.

But while the Devicescape deal, and the hinted-at partnership announcement No. 2, is a big story, it is not the big one, at least as far as the company is concerned.

For the past several months, iPass has been working on technology that will allow it to provide Passport-like services throughout its network of Wi-Fi spots — without users having to have the most up-to-date hardware in place.

First, an explanation about why Passpoint is so important, per the Wi-Fi Alliance:

In Wi-Fi networks that do not support Passpoint, users must search for and choose a network, request the connection to the access point (AP) each time, and in many cases, must re-enter their authentication credentials. Passpoint automates that entire process, enabling a seamless connection between hotspot networks and mobile devices…..

How does one know if a Wi-Fi spot is Passpoint-friendly? Well, really there is no way to tell offhand, but chances are any given hotspot is not.

A survey by IHS of service providers earlier this year, for example, found that a quarter of them expect that by 2016 their access points will be Hotspot 2.0-compliant (essentially, Passpoint is the "brand name" for Hotspot 2.0). One-quarter. In 2016.

Here's another example: T-Mobile and Bright House Networks are partnering on a Passpoint-powered Wi-Fi roaming trial on 34,000 hotspots in Tampa and Orlando. Two cities. (Hat tip to FierceWireless for spotting T-Mobile's webpage on the test.)

iPass's beta project bypasses this because it won't require users to make connection decisions at all, Griffiths explains. Instead, iPass will make them for the users on its new platform.

Security structured like a VPN tunnel

Security is a big piece of this, and it is here that iPass has been investing a lot of time and resources, Keith Waldorf, vice president of engineering at iPass, tells me.

In broad strokes it will work like this, he says: The iPass platform will send the connection to a known trusted spot on the cloud. The data will be encrypted from the device through the free Wi-Fi hotspot to the cloud. This way, the data can't be subject to a "man in the middle" hack. "It will be similar to a VPN tunnel," he says.

This is what iPass has in production right now. It is also being used internally with promising results, the two executives say.

Pushing forward on patents

None of this, by the way, is new for iPass, Griffiths says — in fact, it has been securing related patents for years to get to this point.

"Up until recently, most of the engineering work we did was custom development for large enterprise ID shops, such as putting servers on sites," he says.

"We have been moving away from that — our engineers have great ideas that we want to develop."

The company is at work on a number of projects in fact, he added. "We are basically in startup mode, even though we have been around for 17 years."

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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