This blog post is part of a series called “CommScope Definitions” in which we will explain common terms in communications networks infrastructure.
The topic of Wi-Fi roaming has attracted a lot of attention lately. Cisco first introduced OpenRoaming in 2019 then Aruba announced their version, Air Pass, in March of 2020. Cisco followed this up by gifting OpenRoaming to Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) with the intention of creating an open platform to fuel industry adoption. Most recently Google announced Orion WiFi. All three platforms seek to provide seamless onboarding and roaming between wireless networks using Wi-Fi Alliance’s Passpoint protocol, introduced a decade ago.
This is in fact not a new initiative. In 2002, an initiative, known as eduroam, was formed to offer federated Wi-Fi roaming between different universities and research facilities. Still in use today, it provides researchers, teachers, and students easy and secure network access when visiting an institution other than their own. The eduroam organization is also a founding member of the WBA’s OpenRoaming initiative.
In 2012, Wi-Fi Alliance introduced Wi-Fi CERTIFIED™ Passpoint R1 (Release 1) to allow users to easily transition between partner networks, which became the basis for Hotspot 2.0. The Passpoint protocol addresses network discovery, automatic network access and secure authentication and connectivity. The vision was that people using mobile devices like smartphones and laptops will have reduced reliance on mobile data and be able to seamlessly transition between Wi-Fi networks as they travel, never noticing the transition from SSID to SSID.
OpenRoaming, Air Pass and Orion WiFi are an attempt to extend the technology providing transparent onboarding combined with the creation of a central entity (often referred to as a Federation) that acts as a match maker between Wi-Fi network owners and service providers. However, there are slight differences in objectives of each of these platforms, not in technology but in commercial aspects. Both OpenRoaming and Air Pass primarily target the ability for cellular service providers to seamlessly roam onto an enterprise Wi-Fi network using the phone’s SIM credentials to authenticate onto the Wi-Fi network. This avoids the annoying hassle of having to know or enter the Wi-Fi network SSID and passphrase.
While the goal of OpenRoaming is to provide mobile data offloading, Air Pass heavily markets the ability to extend voice coverage into a building where cellular coverage is lacking. This is the same idea (and same user experience) as Wi-Fi calling, except with transparent onboarding. To be fair, Air Pass claims to work agreements with cellular service providers, although it is unclear which service providers are in place.
Many networks are not designed to support consistent Wi-Fi calling experience. Some service providers do not support Wi-Fi calling on handsets not supplied by the operator (i.e., jailbreak devices) and not all network features (e.g., call waiting or forwarding). Handoff to the mobile network when leaving the Wi-Fi coverage area can also be an issue. Wi-Fi calling is great a substitute when cellular coverage is lacking. However, it is not the same experience that is achieved with cellular coverage.
Unlike OpenRoaming and Orion WiFi, Air Pass can only be used on Aruba networks and therefore does not provide the seamless movement across different Wi-Fi networks made up of different access point manufacturers. Cisco initially did the same before concluding that wide scale adoption would require an open ecosystem.
Google’s primarily motivation with Orion Wifi was to extend their Google Fi coverage and avoid costly cellular roaming charge. However, Google recognized the benefit and potential in promoting an open platform. Orion Marketplace allows any network provider and service provider to participate and is specific to access point manufacturer. Google’s needs were immediate and therefore could not wait for the normal process of building consensus typical of any standardization process. Google continues to work closely the WBA and plans to provide key learnings back into OpenRoaming. Time will tell if these initiatives merge.
CommScope is a proponent of both OpenRoaming and the Orion platforms. We participate in the WBA working meetings for OpenRoaming and have partnered with Google’s Area 120 on the Orion WiFi launch. We are excited about the potential these platforms have for the Wi-Fi industry and our customers. The ability to roam transparently to/from Wi-Fi networks providing cellular-like user experience will be transformative. Just consider traveling for business. The ability to seamlessly roam from an airport to a hotel to a coffee shop without entering a single network credential. A step further would be devices and operators using cellular and Wi-Fi together, choosing which applications should go over cellular and which ones over Wi-Fi, or even load-sharing over both. As a side note, none of this would be possible with Air Pass unless every single network used Aruba access points.
The benefit to carpeted enterprises is less pronounced as employee connectivity is normally handled through policies loaded to the device or a passcode only entered once by an employee, but still potentially useful. It would solve the issue of having to write Guest login details in the top corner of the whiteboard in each meeting room. If it could solve the issue of having to update passwords on my laptop and phone every three months, then count me in for sure.
And then there is the holy grail, making and receiving phone calls in offices where cellular coverage is lacking. That is where there are still challenges to be solved. From Wi-Fi companies, I read and hear how flawlessly Wi-Fi calling works. When I read the marketing to distributed antenna and small cell vendors who do not offer Wi-Fi, they speak inconsistent Wi-Fi calling experiences. The fact is they are both correct. Voice over Wi-Fi can work well in a properly designed network. However, the single greatest benefit of Wi-Fi is its simple to deploy with a limited skill set required but sometimes that results in inadequate performance needed to provide highly reliable Wi-Fi calling.
In recent years, Wi-Fi has evolved from best effort to providing ubiquitous coverage. However, there are still many variables such as high and variable latencies, inconsistent and unpredictable mobility between access points, noisy devices, inability to handoff to cellular networks, that still present challenges to match cellular performance. The challenge of offloading voice or data onto a third-party Wi-Fi network is how to guarantee a minimum quality or service, particularly since this is not the original objective of most enterprise Wi-Fi networks. Both OpenRoaming and Orion WiFi recognize this challenge and are addressing this through service level agreements and network scores. It will be interesting to see if there is enough monetary incentive for most enterprises to accept such an obligation anytime soon.
At CommScope we offer distributed antenna systems (ERA), indoor small cell (ONECELL), and Wi-Fi (RUCKUS) equipment. While admittedly there is some overlap for some use cases, we see these technologies as complimentary. Our goal is to educate customers on the capabilities, benefits and limitation of each technology to best match the right approach for their specific needs. We applaud both Cisco and Google for their willingness to promote an open platform for the good of the entire Wi-Fi industry.