LTE and the Rise of Wi-Fi Roaming

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LTE and the Rise of Wi-Fi Roaming

By Jim Machi, VP of Product Management  |  July 08, 2014

We’re spoiled. Soon, LTE (News - Alert) won’t be good enough for most of us. Yes, it’s great, but it’s not accessible everywhere. And even higher speed and higher capacity LTE networks are bound to get clogged soon enough.

The solution may lie in Wi-Fi. The explosion of mobile data traffic is driving the viability of Wi-Fi networks as offload mechanisms for improving capacity and coverage for mobile carriers. This is opening new opportunities for not only pure-play Wi-Fi providers, but also for mobile network operators that are implementing complementary Wi-Fi networks as a means to expand coverage, decrease the cost per delivered bit, and ease congestion on strained spectrum and backhaul resources.

Mobile carrier operators want to provide a seamless user experience for their customers, not only as the data user roams across his or her cellular network, but also across a broader range of home and visited hotspots. Operators also want to better monetize their network investments through roaming agreements with other wireless operators and MNOs. These agreements are creating opportunities for Wi-Fi roaming hub operators that want to provide value to the ecosystem by enabling multilateral connectivity between multiple Wi-Fi network operators.

But how, exactly, does Wi-Fi roaming work? Roaming in mobile and wireless networks is the process by which customers can use the network of a visited operator to access services in their home networks. Roaming onto Wi-Fi is an important component of mobile data offload strategy in that it can help operators cost effectively increase their coverage footprints and provide users with a consistent and improved quality of experience. As standards and technologies evolve, operators are employing various approaches to improve roaming and provide their customers with the best possible experience as they move between mobile networks and Wi-Fi hotspots.

The Wireless Broadband Alliance has established roaming guidelines to provide its member operators a reference for facilitating roaming. These guidelines make roaming easier, which benefits Wi-Fi operators because it brings better potential to monetize network investments through increased traffic and improved user experience.

While there are many ways to actually implement networks to support roaming, there are a couple of broad architectural options that Wi-Fi operators have when it comes to interconnecting with other networks to allow customers to roam. One is for Wi-Fi operators to connect directly with other operators and establish bilateral agreements to enable roaming services. Alternatively, operators can use the services of a third-party hubbing provider, like an IPX, that has established a Wireless Roaming Intermediary eXchange, a framework that was created by the WBA to facilitate roaming across different Wi-Fi technology implementations. Another initiative, the WiFi Alliance (News - Alert)-led Hotspot 2.0, is focusing on ways to help devices improve their capabilities for detection and selection of Wi-Fi networks, thereby reducing the traffic impact on core facilities.

When it comes to cellular networks, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project has developed specifications for Global System for Mobile Communications operators about how Wi-Fi networks can integrate with 3G and 4G mobile networks. The GSMA and WBA are working together to harmonize Wi-Fi roaming efforts and to make the integration of 3GPP mobile and Wi-Fi seamless and transparent to the end user. 

It makes sense, then, that mobile operators are turning to Wi-Fi as a means to improve coverage and capacity to meet consumer demand for mobile data services. Organizations such as the WBA, WiFi Alliance, GSMA (News - Alert) and 3GPP are working to set the standards for improving the overall user experience for customers to move seamlessly between 3G, 4G and Wi-Fi networks, which will be invaluable as network congestion continues. By applying technology that includes interworking of RADIUS, Diameter and SS7/MAP interfaces, today’s Wi-Fi operators can accelerate connectivity between different types of networks, better leverage existing investments in infrastructure, and upgrade to new technology and architectures in a more controlled manner.

Jim Machi is vice president of product management at Dialogic (News - Alert) Inc. (

Edited by Maurice Nagle