Within a year cellphones will be able to use operators' WiFi hotspots without cumbersome logging-in procedures, giving consumers faster access to the Internet on the go, a new industry initiative promised on Tuesday.
The initiative from two industry groups - the GSMA and the Wireless Broadband Alliance  - aims to provide technical and commercial solutions for WiFi roaming, which would also ease the traffic load on operators' already crowded networks.
“The proliferation of smartphones and tablets around the world, as well as consumers’ huge appetite for data means innovative solutions need to be explored to make using the Internet as convenient and as accessible as possible,” said Dan Warren, senior director of technology at the GSMA. “Through combining the proven capabilities of Mobile Broadband and Wi-Fi technologies, users will have the freedom to move between networks with ease.”
Wi-Fi is increasingly emerging as a feature on smartphones and tablets, but today there is no consistency in the way these devices attach to Wi-Fi networks. This process includes device configuration, the use of access keys and the various mechanisms for acquiring and paying for connectivity. WiFi roaming will allow mobile devices to connect seamlessly to a hotspot using a SIM card for authentication, and it enables mobile operators to identify users securely.
"In the long-term vision consumers don't care about what they are connected to," said Warren.
The industry groups said the first carriers would start to use the new technologies within 12 months, while it would likely take 2-3 years for this to become widespread. More advanced operators can upgrade their WiFi networks with just a software upgrade, while others will need to change hotspots or servers to enable cellphones to use their networks.
Aside from the telecom industry, this initiative could have some interesting effects on the exploding machine-to-machine (M2M) industry.
“From the perspective of a cellular M2M service offering it enables WiFi-based devices to be more easily addressed. It would also mean that, for example, the automotive sector would be able to make use of macro-cellular technology when moving but attach over WiFi when available and the car is stationary (for example at a roadside services or petrol station),” said Warren. “The overall effect is to have WiFi act in a far more complimentary (as opposed to competitive) role in the wider industry and if that complimentary nature were to extend in to M2M opportunities, that would be worthy of some investigation.”