Early this year, New York City announced that it was replacing its public phone booths with fast and free public Wi-Fi hotspots. The sheer scale of this network is not the only thing of interest, though. These hotspots differ from most of those we may be familiar with. They use a technology called Hotspot 2.0, and this comes with many benefits.
Although you may never have heard of Hotspot 2.0, the technology has been around for quite some time. As early as 2011, the IEEE integrated Hotspot 2.0 into their 802.11u WLAN standard. Also, the Wi-Fi Alliance has been certifying wireless access points that comply with 802.11u since 2012, giving them the label Wi-Fi CERTIFIED Passpoint.
But what are the concrete advantages and benefits of this technology, and how does the Hotspot 2.0 standard work?
Improved user experience
Hotspot 2.0 massively facilitates the communications between the end device and the access point before the user is authenticated and logged onto the Wi-Fi network. Beacons gather the basic network information (e.g. SSID, signal strength) and check the supported authentication methods. As soon as an available method matches, an automatic, encrypted authentication of the client takes place and the Wi-Fi connection is established. This process, which goes entirely unnoticed by the user, is called “Discovery and Selection.”
Different methods are available for the authentication process. All Passpoint CERTIFIED hotspots connect using WPA2-enterprise security, and this specifies an authentication method based on EAP (Extensible Authorization Protocol).
Authentication relies on any one of a number of methods, including the SIM-card based EAP-SIM, a digital X.509 certificate, or more traditionally on a user name and password submitted with the EAP-TTLS and MS-CHAPv2 protocols. It is no longer necessary to manually select and connect to a public wireless LAN; device identification and authentication are automatic. And the best thing is: If you pass by a hotspot which is part of the same carrier/provider network, you are connected automatically. This enhances the user experience and generates greater engagement from customers at cafés or venues offering these free hotspots, because people like to return to places where they get a fast, hassle-free wireless LAN connection.
Also, it is easier for users to move between public Wi-Fi hotspots without losing the wireless connection or having to enter a new ID or password. This is all handled by the hardware in the background, provided that it supports Hotspot 2.0 technology.
A plus for security
Another major advantage of Hotspot 2.0 is a significant gain in security. Today, most public Wi-Fi hotspots are open and configured with no security at all, the aim being to make it user-friendly and easy for customers to connect. What’s more: Security measures based on WEP and WPA pre-shared keys (PSK) are not viable because the user base of public hotspots is highly dynamic and not necessarily trustworthy. A user with criminal intent could for example use the fixed pre-shared key to exploit other users connected to the same access point. Moreover, WEP and even WPA encryption are no longer secure as they can be hacked with a brute force attack.
With Hotspot 2.0, authentication uses the highly secure WPA2-Enterprise standard. The main difference between WPA and WPA2 is the encryption method. While WPA uses the less secure Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP), WPA2 makes use of the far more reliable Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) to encrypt the connection. AES also enhances data transfer, whereas with TKIP the data transfer rate is limited to 54 Mbps. So not only is it more secure to use this hotspot standard, it also provides faster Wi-Fi.
Attractive package, slow acceptance
According to an ABI research survey on developments in Wi-Fi hotspot distribution, more than 6 million hotspots supporting Hotspot 2.0 will be deployed worldwide by 2020. And yet the general acceptance and distribution of this promising technology lags far behind its true potential. This is all the more the case in Europe, where Hotspot 2.0 is close to unknown.
Some argue that this is because of a lack of widespread support of 802.11u. But a recent survey by IHS Infonetics shows that by the end of this year, 26 percent of access points are expected to be Hotspot 2.0-compliant. Other estimates state that there are already millions of mobile devices supporting this wireless standard, and major network equipment manufacturers claim that almost half of their deployed access points and Wi-Fi devices are Passpoint CERTIFIED by the Wi-Fi Alliance.
One key factor hampering the general acceptance of Hotspot 2.0 is that operators of hotspots and large carriers are often unaware of potential business models, says Ahmed Ali, ABI Research analyst in the conclusion of the survey mentioned earlier.
However, the ever increasing hunger that mobile devices have for data is causing providers to start shifting the data traffic from mobile networks to the wireless LANs. This “offloading” is highly attractive in high-density areas such as airports, convention centres, or inside office buildings and sports arenas. Carriers have realized that offloading data to existing Wi-Fi networks is a smart and cost-effective way of providing additional bandwidth.
Unlike cellular roaming that is confined to mobile network operator footprints, Hotspot 2.0 roaming can move between totally different types of businesses and organizations. For instance, deals could be agreed between mobile network operators and hotels, convention centres, department stores and sport stadiums, coffee shops, or any other locality offering a wireless network. Partners stand to benefit mutually from individual roaming contracts.
Best of all, the hardware is already there in many cases. By means of a simple software update, existing hotspots are transformed into a Hotspot 2.0 and made part of the overall wireless infrastructure, without any additional costs for the providers or network operators. This holds true also for our access points which support Hotspot 2.0 for quite some time.
By not using Hotspot 2.0 to its full potential, we are missing out on a real opportunity to enhance the usability of public wireless LAN, to facilitate roaming, and to improve security at the same time. But there is even more to be gained: Particularly in locations with huge numbers of smartphone users—e. g. in big cities, sports stadiums, etc.—Hotspot 2.0-enabled Wi-Fi hotspots could add significant additional bandwidth to the heavily used mobile operators’ networks by combining both technologies into a single network. In the end everybody would benefit.
See our video tutorial about Hotspot 2.0 for further information about the technology.