OpenRoaming Lays the Groundwork for One Global Wi-Fi Network

June 05, 2020 by Tyler Charboneau

The Wireless Broadband Alliance has issued a rallying cry for tech leaders to support a global connectivity solution.

Recently, the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) called “all organizations in the Wi-Fi ecosystem” to embrace its new OpenRoaming project.

This development aims to boost public Wi-Fi connectivity—providing more ubiquitous internet access and security for billions of worldwide devices. Thirty-four WBA member companies have gotten the ball rolling thus far. 


The Trouble With Public Wi-Fi

For those who’ve wrestled with finicky access points, the prospect of barrier-free internet might seem like something of science fiction.

Public networks present many hurdles. Users have to establish a connection to an access point without a clear origin. This is especially tricky in settings like shopping malls where mesh networks might not provide strong connectivity or security. 


Using public Wi-Fi can sometimes subject users to man-in-the-middle attacks

Using public Wi-Fi can sometimes subject users to man-in-the-middle attacks. Screenshot used courtesy of Consumer Reports

Then, there’s everyone’s favorite "decoy" network—which seemingly has full strength but won’t successfully connect to the internet. Ad blockers and faulty protocols prevent users from authenticating or accessing captive portals. When you finally do have the opportunity to connect, you’re forced to create an account and surrender personal information. 

Public Wi-Fi is rife with fragmentation. Some networks use the 2.4 Ghz band, while others operate on the 5 Ghz band. Ranges and speed vary as a result. Moving from one location to another means kicking off this process once more. 


What Is OpenRoaming?

OpenRoaming is a project aiming to create one unified connection standard. Furthermore, users won’t have to reauthenticate while moving from place to place—alleviating drops and general frustration. Businesses also have the opportunity to explore new network-based revenue models. 


Architecture of the OpenRoaming framework

Architecture of the OpenRoaming framework. Image used courtesy of the Wireless Broadband Alliance

Technically speaking, OpenRoaming has three tentpole features:

  • Cloud federation: an online ecosystem of open networks that responds to saved user identities, allowing for seamless transitions between connections
  • Cybersecurity: promotion of scalable, secure, and encrypted connections that coexist across boundaries and regions
  • Network automation: code frameworks facilitating policy provisions, device-and-network configurations, and certified Passpoint-enabled networks

Overall, the project intends to create networks of performant and simple hotspots that remove the headaches associated with current public networks. Users will only be required to create an OpenRoaming ID associated with their device. 

This simple credential provides automatic connectivity once one wanders into a network’s boundaries. Attendees at Mobile World Congress 2019 likened it to entering their home—where connectivity was established without them even realizing it.


OpenRoaming was in effect at MWC 2019

OpenRoaming was in effect at MWC 2019. Screenshot used courtesy of Cisco

This passive access is extremely convenient and natural for users.


The Technology Behind OpenRoaming

Mobile devices contain an SoC enabling both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. Today’s cellphones use stacked logic boards to save space, and these signal-related chips reside on a radiofrequency (RF) board. This PCB layer also powers similar technologies like NFC, wireless charging, embedded SIM, and cellular connectivity. While true for iPhones, competing smartphones have adopted similar logic board layouts as internal designs have matured.  

That said, not all users will enjoy widespread OpenRoaming support. Lead project engineer, Cisco’s Bart Brinckman, alluded to unique hardware requirements behind the technology. Samsung’s Galaxy S9, S10, and Note 10 support OpenRoaming. Older devices seem to be excluded.


Samsung’s Galaxy S9, S10, and Note 10 have OpenRoaming built-in at the hardware

Samsung’s Galaxy S9, S10, and Note 10 have OpenRoaming built-in at the hardware. Image used courtesy of Samsung

Google and Samsung are WBA partners, so it makes sense that Android devices were early adopters. Cisco’s current documentation shares that devices with a Google ID or Apple ID are compatible. These use the OpenRoaming app, which exists in both platforms’ app stores. 

Software compatibility is essential to harnessing OpenRoaming. Devices must be Hotspot 2.0 enabled to connect to these federated networks—which leverage their roaming IDs to recognize these beacons. Phones and other electronics immediately connect once these conditions are met with hardware and software working in tandem.

In this way, OpenRoaming connectivity works in much the same way that geofences do.


Pursuing a Highly-Connected Future

The maturity and ubiquity of Wi-Fi have been one of our biggest technical marvels. OpenRoaming seeks to solve the majority of public Wi-Fi’s current shortcomings as easily as possible. While we vaunt 5G (and possibly 6G) as connectivity giants, OpenRoaming also has the potential to become a technological goliath.