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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Number 1 problem for "seamless" models of WiFi offload / network selection

I frequently argue against the assumption that "seamless" connection to WiFi is practical or desirable, especially for the general case of smartphones or tablets being "pushed" automatically to connect via a combination of technologies and new standards like Passpoint, Hotspot 2.0, ANDSF and EAP-SIM.

I thought it was worth stressing and clarifying the single most problematic use-case:

Worst case scenario: A device automatically being connected to paid or overly policy-managed carrier-WiFi, when a free alternative is readily available

Nothing will cause customer dissatisfaction & churn faster than incurring additional costs (or additional usage against a quota) than this. Expect lawyers, regulators, consumer press & commentators to throw very large & painful bricks at you if it occurs. And probably device & OS vendors too.

The classic example that most readers of this blog will be familiar with is attending a conference in a hotel with expensive WiFi, but where the event organisers give you a free code, or even set up their own APs for better performance/lower cost. We'd be deeply annoyed if our phones "roamed onto" the local WiFi automatically, unless the usage was 100% free as well. Similar story if your frequent-flyer lounge has free WiFi, but your devices magically jumped onto the paid/roamed WiFi in the main airport hall.

I am writing this on a laptop, with two phones by my side, in Starbucks in London. There is free WiFi (provided by BT Openzone in this case). You typically log on via a very simple splash page and selecting an obvious Openzone-Starbucks SSID. A very small "seam" indeed. Alternatively, I can use the BT WiFi app I have on my phones for free, or login on the "normal" BT Openzone SSID page, because I have BT Broadband at home. I'd be irritated if I was automatically shunted to one of my CellCo's SSIDs instead, with their charging and policy being applied.

Same thing in hundreds of other situations too - restaurants, pubs, offices, friends' homes, public buildings and so forth. There is free WiFi - often very good too - easily obtainable from a source other than the cellular operator. There are multiple stakeholders here - the venue, advertisers, content companies, fixed operators, your device supply, your employer and so forth. All might have negotiated a better "private" WiFi experience than your cellular provider at that location.

Not only that, but the cellular WiFi option might be subject to onerous policy restrictions (eg VoIP blocking) which don't apply when you use WiFi in "private" mode. 

There must be an easy and obvious way to manage this - and not just buried 7 layers down in the menus with some obscure configuration settings. The alternative is that the carrier WiFi is 100% free, 100% unmetered, in which case people won't care about the other options. That is why Apple is happy with AT&T and some other operators doing automated WiFi log-on, as it's in a customer-friendly form. One other possible option is that the operator (instead of charging you) gives you extra free stuff such as exclusive content to tempt you onto its WiFi option.

Seams are often there for good reasons, as well as bad. Seams can be monetised; seams can present the user with important information or choices. In some cases automation and "frictionless" connection in desirable, while in other cases it's not. Mobile operators are just one (often minor) stakeholder in the overall WiFi ecosystem, and need to stop arrogantly assuming that their WiFi choices trump either users', or other parties. Unless and until Hotspot 2.0 and its related standards fully and explicitly recognise these choices, it's dead in the water.


Unknown said...

In Passpoint, under overlapping coverage, device will prioritize private access points over NGH hotshots.

Dave Wright said...

Hi Dean,

I certainly don’t want a “Big Brother” Wi-Fi experience, where some entity is lurking in the bowels of my mobile ready to force me onto a connection that is not of my choosing. Fortunately, as far as I can see from firsthand experience with the technologies, there is no reason to be concerned that EAP-SIM or Hotspot 2.0 will lead to that sort of outcome. Note that I did not include ANDSF because that does have a bit more of the feel of an operator-entity making decisions for you, but I’m still waiting to see it in action before making final judgments.

Far from being a repressive or restrictive technology, I envision Hotspot 2.0 as a key enabler of all the public Wi-Fi being deployed and a tremendous enhancement for Wi-Fi centric services. Providing detailed information to the device prior to association, automating the association/authentication, and abstracting authentication from access are all very positive developments for Wi-Fi IMO.

The Hotspot 2.0 Technical Specifications (Release 1 and Release 2) both uphold User Preference as the first decision point for network selection. Some people have been concerned about the Operator Policy aspects of Release2 , but they need to understand that under the OMA-DM framework that Release 2 is based upon, an operator can only provision policy for the credential that they have issued. So my mobile operator could dictate that if I’m using their SIM as a HS 2.0 credential then my device should prefer certain operators’ Wi-Fi and possibly check the backhaul and open ports before connecting – BUT, I still control where that SIM ranks in priority amongst the various credentials that I have stored on my handset.

As to the complexity of the UI for the Wi-Fi connection manager on the devices, we’ll have to see what Samsung, Apple and the rest come up with. If they want to be Passpoint certified, they’ll have to comply with the User Preference requirements of the HS2.0 specs. I don’t see why the device manufacturers would do anything with their connection managers that would give the end user the sense they had lost control of the Wi-Fi selection process. As you are rightly pointing out, Wi-Fi is a user-directed technology, which is one reason that it has been so wildly successful. Any vendor or standards body that tries to challenge that entrenched attitude is going to face some serious backlash. I don’t think Apple or Samsung would even entertain that thought for fear of instantly losing market share over the fallout. Nor do I think the Wi-Fi Alliance would put forward a spec that would remove the ultimate control from the end user.

I think you need to give Hotspot 2.0 a little more time and use it for yourself before concluding that it will take control away from the user. I think it will give the user a whole new range of capabilities and the freedom to use their device more easily.

And I haven't even gotten into some of the other services that I think GAS/ANQP might make possible over Public Wi-Fi.