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14 September 2020

Google’s Orion WiFi is latest attempt to achieve seamless hotspot roaming

By Wireless Watch Staff

Google, once a key champion of public WiFi as a way to dilute the MNOs’ cellular dominance of mobile broadband, has been quiet on this front lately. But now it has re-entered the fray with a new platform called Orion WiFi, which will support the elusive goal of seamless roaming onto hotspots, while improving monetization options for location owners.

Orion aims to make the case for high quality public WiFi more attractive to owners of venues, office blocks, shopping malls and other locations with complex wireless needs, by improving the chance to make money from investing in hotspots. Google is targeting the system, initially in the USA, at WiFi-first mobile operators as well as hotspot aggregators. Its own MVNO, Google Fi, and another WiFi-first service, Republic Wireless, have signed up to support Orion.

These MVNOs direct users to WiFi connections by default, and only move them (automatically) to cellular when there is no decent WiFi signal. That has proved a powerful way for companies such as cable operators to reduce their MVNO fees and to offer price-competitive mobile deals to consumers, putting pressure on the MNOs in the mass market.

It has depended on the MVNOs having their own hotspots and homespots, as the cablecos do, or signing roaming deals with large numbers of individual hotspot owners. With Orion, their users will automatically roam on to supporting access points without any log-in requirements.

The MVNOs will have to pay venue owners to roam onto their hotpots, but the per-GB cost will be far lower than their MVNO fees (in the case of Fi and Republic, mainly to T-Mobile). Orion Wifi will handle the payment and settlement processes for these roaming charges.

Raj Gajwani, director of Google’s Area 120 inhouse product incubator, described Orion WiFi, rather predictably, as an Airbnb for hotspots. He acknowledged that broad support and coverage would be key to success, and it would be important to get other MVNOs and even MNOs to join the scheme (some MNOs, notably Sprint before its T-Mobile merger, were also offering WiFi-first plans to attract price-conscious consumers and reduce strain on their own networks by offloading high volume, low value traffic).

To drive interest in Orion, Gajwani said WiFi equipment makers were pledging support – Cisco, Commscope Ruckus and Juniper Mist were the first to do so. And some commercial property operators have also signed up, including 5G LLC, GigaMonster, CA Ventures, Single Digits and Connectivity Wireless.

“Our 5G future is not going to work unless you have heterogeneous networks,” Gajwani said.

It remains to be seen whether the power of Google’s ecosystem and brand will drive higher levels of success than other attempts to achieve cellular-like seamless roaming onto WiFi hotspots. Some of these relied on a single company amassing huge numbers of hotspots through build-out, aggregation or partnerships – schemes run by iPass (now owned by Pareteum), or by cablecos, for instance. And the Wireless Broadband Alliance has worked for some years to make its Hotspot 2.0 technology a standard within public WLANs. Recently, the WBA adopted Cisco’s OpenRoaming platform, which seeks to build a federation of WiFi hotspots.

But the success of WiFi roaming is very far from the universal, seamless system familiar in the cellular network – and arguably its greatest advantage over other wireless platforms. And Gajwani agreed that the support of the big carriers and cablecos would be important and that, for “a new idea, a new product”, it would take time to build support.