In the connected world of today, we feel the need to access the Internet wherever we are — at home, at work or in public places. The last has always been a dicey option.
While so many make use of public — and mostly free — Wi-Fi networks, in malls, bus and railway stations, airport departure areas and lounges, it is usually a case of living dangerously.
Because such public hotspots have been known to be the target of innumerable net baddies, waiting to hack into the devices of Wi-Fi users, hoping to skim off some sensitive information: passwords, money transaction credentials, credit card CVVs…
There has never been a perfect, uncrackable public network, where cyber criminals don't manage to neutralise every safety feature — in time.
But finally we could see change in 2024 and public Wi-Fi might just be both secure and private — like a home or office network.
The technology to make this happen is called WBA OpenRoaming and it has been developed by the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) of the world’s leading telecom providers and solution developers.
First showcased almost a year ago at the 2023 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, it allowed delegates to seamlessly connect to Wi-Fi networks at the event venue, with a smooth and secure connectivity. Since then, dozens of service providers have come on board with the solution.
An India First
Among early adherents was the Delhi-headquartered Indian communications solutions company HFCL, which integrated support for WBA OpenRoaming across their entire portfolio of Wi-Fi products, making it the first Indian enterprise to do so.
This support is available for all global customers looking to buy OpenRoaming enabled Wi-Fi solutions. This gives India a headstart when local players decide to implement OpenRoaming in their public or office Wi-Fi networks, since they would be deploying a Made-in-India network with this new technology.
What Is OpenRoaming?
It is an industry-standard initiative driven by WBA, that aims to create a global ecosystem which allows users to seamlessly and securely connect to Wi-Fi networks without compromising their privacy.
It utilises a federation of identity frameworks, where users’ credentials and digital certificates are securely stored and managed by trusted Identity Providers (IdPs).
Instead of manually entering usernames and passwords, OpenRoaming enables users to authenticate themselves automatically using their unique digital certificates. This eliminates the need for sharing personal information or login credentials with each network.
No need to re-authenticate when changing hotspots, or accepting long terms and conditions. And in India, hopefully Wi-Fi networks which are part of OpenRoaming, may not insist on sending or receiving one time passwords (OTPs).
The crucial security flows from this: The underlying technology behind OpenRoaming is based on a robust Public Key Infrastructure (PKI), enabling secure and encrypted communication between users and networks.
HFCL explains: "The idea is to create a world where users can access Wi-Fi anywhere without having to search for available Wi-Fi networks, without having to worry about connecting to open-security Wi-Fi and go through complex authentication processes, which can be time-consuming and frustrating. With OpenRoaming, users can automatically connect to any Wi-Fi network that is part of the OpenRoaming ecosystem anywhere in the world and start using it immediately."
Of course, it all boils down to how fast and how many Wi-Fi service providers join the OpenRoaming consortium, but the compelling benefits for users, coupled with the business opportunities that will open up, may act as a catalyst.
Interestingly, OpenRoaming will work equally well with 5G networks and Internet of Things (IoT), which further expands the field.
Says Tiago Rodrigues, CEO of the Wireless Broadband Alliance, while releasing the WBA Annual Industry Report 2024 last week: “There has never been a more exciting time for Wi-Fi with technologies such as OpenRoaming more widely available than ever and addressing the challenges in areas, including guest Wi-Fi provision, IoT deployments and private cellular networks."
Adds Jitendra Chaudhary, Executive President, HFCL, “We are immensely proud to be the first Indian enterprise that enables the deployment of WBA’s OpenRoaming across our Wi-Fi portfolio. We are currently working with telecom operators and large ISPs in India and in a few other countries to deploy OpenRoaming. We aim to make the most of this first mover advantage and make the internet more accessible for all globally.”
As potential beneficiaries, we can but hope the industry comes together quickly on this technology in India — and around the world.
Anand Parthasarathy is managing director at Online India Tech Pvt Ltd and a veteran IT journalist who has written about the Indian technology landscape for more than 15 years for The Hindu.
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