AT&T Delivers Seamless, Secure Global Wi-Fi Roaming

Tourists, road warriors and travellers in general, are spoiled today by the ubiquity of good phone service in the United States. So much so that they expect the same connectivity when they travel outside the country and are disappointed if they’re hit with a huge roaming bill when they get home.

To accommodate the huge swath of travellers, AT&T’s approach was to update its plans to incorporate overseas Wi-Fi hotspots in locations where travellers were more likely to frequent when on the road, such as airports, hotels, cafes, shopping malls and corporate offices.

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Users increasingly rely on their mobile phones wherever they are, so establishing better, easier and less costly connectivity during international travel has been a holy grail in the telecom industry. The way forward is an innovative Wi-Fi offload and roaming solution from Accuris Networks, which is making Wi-Fi networks work just like cellular networks for travellers.

Communications leader AT&T has long been a proponent of Wi-Fi and began building an international roaming offer utilising Wi-Fi hotspots in 2012. Accuris Networks provided its AccuROAM technology as part of this solution. Positive response has spurred rapid expansion, with users liking its simplicity, flexibility, service and price. AT&T is now enabling other carriers to offer this secure service to their customers, thereby avoiding the difficult and costly task of building out Wi-Fi networks themselves.

The Opportunity

Tourists, road warriors and travellers in general, are spoiled today by the ubiquity of good phone service in the United States. So much so that they expect the same connectivity when they travel outside the country and are disappointed if they’re hit with a huge roaming bill when they get home. Given the fact that studies show smartphone owners spend an average of more than three hours per day using their devices, it’s clear that a huge market exists for attractive international roaming solutions.

Gone are the days when users were content with pulling out roaming guides to calculate how to make calls and what they might cost. Switching out SIM cards from various foreign operators, if even possible, was troublesome and a purchased SIM means using an assigned phone number, rather than their existing number. Pay-as-you-go phones are rarely cheap and don’t always allow roaming. Mobile providers do offer international calling and data plans, but the cost is usually high.

The AT&T Wi-Fi Hub is a simple end-to-end solution to easily add Wi-Fi roaming to a carrier’s portfolio.

AT&T Spokesperson

A popular approach for using smartphones overseas is utilising Wi-Fi hotspots. However, this can be challenging for users when it comes to choosing optimal Wi-Fi providers. Many cities have hotspot networks that travellers can join for a fee and there are worldwide Wi-Fi networks available, but they’re often expensive.

On the operator end, secure authentication, as well as accurate charging and billing, are troublesome issues associated with Wi-Fi hotspots. Standards bodies such as the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) and the Wi-Fi Alliance, have focused on improving security and access with Hotspot 2.0. However, the majority of networks today don’t yet offer such seamless authentication. Secure access isn’t yet the norm, even though customer demand leads to operators offering Wi-Fi access without these desirable elements.

The Solution

Drivers such as wide penetration of smartphones, huge growth in data usage and customers reliance on always being connected, have created a market ready for expansion.

To accommodate the huge swath of travellers, AT&T’s approach was to update its plans to incorporate overseas Wi-Fi hotspots in locations where travellers were more likely to frequent when on the road, such as airports, hotels, cafes, shopping malls and corporate offices, making International roaming packages with Wi-Fi available for Android and iOS smartphones.

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Access to International Wi-Fi hotspots was launched in 2012. However, this was just the first phase of an ambitious longer-term solution, with AT&T building out a Wi-Fi footprint that would expand the breadth and depth of available hotspots. The company initially included International Wi-Fi in two of its three data roaming plans, but there was more to come.

AT&T negotiated agreements with a multitude of networks, tying them together seamlessly and securely. “When travellers arrive at their location and turn on their phone, they want it to just work,” explained an AT&T spokesperson. “Travelling customers are going to seek out Wi-Fi anyway so every company’s goal should be to make it easier and seamless for them.”

AT&T chose to use SIM authentication as a way to make Wi-Fi roaming more seamless and secure, achieving this goal through the Accuris solution.

AT&T Wi-Fi Hub Service Highlights

  • Access to over 1M carrier Wi-Fi hotspots in more than 30 countries
  • SIM-based authentication
  • Extension to GSM billing
  • Support for a range of access point types and security

Accuris knew that providing usernames and passwords to customers would have been the same as other vendors and would not excite subscribers.

By utilising SIM-based authentication via the Accuris Networks AccuROAM™ platform, customers accessing AT&T’s International Wi-Fi hotspots can access Wi-Fi without needing to enter usernames or passwords. Accuris Networks technology enables any type of Wi-Fi access technology to work as a full extension of GSM or CDMA networks for billing, policy and authentication. Not just for use with data services but also voice and messaging. AT&T international roaming subscribers access the Accuris Networks server through an app that gives easy access to secure hotspots when abroad.

Some other vendors can perform SIM authentication on Wi-Fi using a standard called EAP-SIM, but the Accuris Networks unique approach goes far beyond that. EAP-SIM only works with some networks such as ones upgraded to Hotspot 2.0. However, the AT&T Wi-Fi Hub also authenticates on legacy networks which don’t support SIM in a capability called WISPr1+.

With the Accuris Network solution, AT&T was able to take advantage of lower wholesale rates, cheaper network costs and pass on some of the savings to subscribers. With its international Wi-Fi roaming footprint established, in October 2014 the company changed its international plans to AT&T PassportSM. This was followed by a second phase in which unlimited Wi-Fi was made available in all plans along with a cellular data allowance, unlimited texting and competitive pricing for calling. Just a month after updating its plans last year, the number of roamers increased six-fold and the uplift is continuing.

AT&T saw the company’s Wi-Fi footprint increase from approximately 40,000 hotspots in 15 countries to over 1 million hotspots in more than 30 countries.

The Next Phase

The most recent Wi-Fi related undertaking by AT&T is the creation of the AT&T Wi-Fi Hub solution. Setting up direct Wi-Fi roaming agreements is a difficult, time-intensive process, and the cost of acquiring the required technology is high. This solution is a true Wi-Fi wholesale platform, resolving the barriers for operators.

“Because of the rates that we were able to negotiate with our Wi-Fi partners, we can bring a one-stop solution to carriers cost-effectively, so that they can enjoy the increased usage and revenue that Wi-Fi roaming offers,“ said the AT&T spokesperson.

The customer wins by getting access to better, easier, cheaper roaming. Carriers win by having an attractive offer for international travellers…

AT&T Spokesperson

Since the hub utilises the industry-leading Accuris Networks SIM-based authentication technology, it provides carriers using this Wi-Fi ecosystem with the enormous advantage of including legacy networks in their offering. This is far superior to waiting for a time when networks have been upgraded to the most recent hotspot technologies. Among the many subscriber benefits is the ability to utilise the full capabilities of their phones when travelling. Typically, users are inconvenienced when using data abroad. The cost of cellular data is high and Wi-Fi networks are sporadic.

AT&T’s carrier-focused Wi-Fi hub makes data more accessible to end-users, enabling them to use Wi-Fi hotspots for data-intensive tasks without worrying about massive bills.

Carriers wishing to take advantage of the hub can be up and running in a few weeks. Subscribers just need to download an app from their home carrier to access low-cost Wi-Fi roaming through a roaming package.

The Accuris Network technology has played a larger role in the solution beyond security. The platform offers more than just international roaming and SIP, it performs domestic offload, Diameter routing and enables any carrier to offer elements that carriers rely on in their home service, including continuity of service for billing, charging and policies.

A turnkey solution for international Wi-Fi roaming is a win-win proposition in today’s competitive wireless industry. “Putting together this kind of Wi-Fi footprint isn’t something that can be done overnight,” explained the AT&T spokesperson. “The customer wins by getting access to better, easier, cheaper roaming. Carriers win by having an attractive offer for international travellers and we win by having a large enough ecosystem to get lower wholesale rates for roaming that results in less-costly service.”

Smartphone users now see Wi-Fi as a natural extension of the current cellular service and because the cellphone has become such an integral part of life, taking the phone when travelling becomes a natural extension of using the phone.

The growth in Wi-Fi hotspots continues and new technologies such as Accuris Networks’ authentication for NGH and Hotspot 2.0 bring the promise of truly seamless user experience. Accuris Networks and AT&T provide that promise today.