Italy’s government and fiber providers fill their gaps with WiFi

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It is not just operators which are turning to WiFi to fill gaps in their mobile assets, but whole governments. Italian lawmakers want the government to establish a nationwide public hotspots network, at a cost of €5m ($6.3m), to bring broadband coverage levels in line with those of neighboring states.

Like a giant version of some of the municipal schemes of a decade ago, in which cities tried to address the digital divide with free-to-access WiFi, the Italian scheme would see free hotspots installed in public spaces, airports, shops, taxis and so on, and the network would be constructed over three years from mid-2015 (if approved and funded).

As well as addressing broadband availability for citizens, it would also focus on improving facilities for visitors in popular tourist areas. Fewer than 1% of Italians can access broadband services with 30Mbps speeds or better, according to research by the Politecnico University in Milan, which is well behind the 6% average for Europe as a whole. If the plan is adopted, it would be one of the first state-funded WiFi networks of this kind, though it would be likely to seek an element of private sector financing too, as well as revenues from partners such as MNOs looking to offload data.

Meanwhile, 3 Italia has launched an experimental outdoor WiFi service that enables customers to hand off seamlessly from its cellular network. This has been offered to 35,000 testers in the city of Monza, under the brand 3Wi-Fi, who receive free data access while the trial lasts (until November 20). The service is being provided via an alliance with fixed-line operator Fastweb, and its WiFi hotspots, which are backhauled by its fiber-to-the-cabinet network, currently available in 23 cities and rolling out in a further 80.

Fastweb has integrated its WiFi network with 3’s 3G and LTE infrastructure, enabling users to hand over from one to the other seamlessly, with automatic log-in and two-factor authentication.

“The integration between the WiFi network and the mobile network enables us to offer increasingly innovative and high quality services in terms of performance and security,” said Dina Ravera, 3 Italia’s COO, in a statement.

“With this innovative service, Fastweb is putting all the power of fiber at the disposition of the mobile operator to make its mobile users’ browsing experience more powerful and satisfying,” said Fabrizio Casati, director of Fastweb Wholesale.

And in Belgium, Proximus is also looking for greater integration of WiFi and cellular to support new services and user experiences, moving beyond the simplest levels of data offload – still all most MNOs support – and towards seamless hand-off. Proximus customers can connect to 930,000 WiFi hotspots and homespots in Belgium, and about 5m round the world, via EAP-SIM authentication. Proximus said EAP is now present in around 70% of smartphones and all new iOS, Android and Windows Phone 8.1 handsets.

Customers with a mobile subscription are automatically connected to the WiFi network, while hotspot access is free to Proximus’s Internet Everywhere and Office&Go customers. The firm’s parent Belgacom launched Internet Everywhere in November 2011, in partnership with FON, the pioneer of the homespot concept (in which a home gateway, backhauled by the consumer’s broadband line, has a second SSID which supports public access, allowing the broadband provider to extend its wireless coverage at low cost on the back of its existing network).

Of course, the WiFi Alliance’s Hotspot 2.0/Passpoint technology for device connectivity and hand-off, and the Wireless Broadband Alliance’s complementary Next Generation Hotspot for access points, hope to be the universal standards enabling seamless authentication, roaming and cellular/WiFi handover. According to Edgar Figueroa, head of the WiFi Alliance, operators are now starting to move from Passpoint trials to commercial deployments as more devices become certified and as roaming deals are signed. Five international operators have deployed Passpoint 2.0 and a further 25, including Deutsche Telekom and Teliasonera, are trialing it.

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Caroline has been analyzing and reporting in the hi-tech industries since 1986 and has a huge wealth of experience of technology trends and how they impact on business models. She started her career as a journalist, specializing in enterprise and carrier networks and in silicon technologies. She spent much of her journalistic career at VNU Business Publishing, then Europe’s largest producer of technology publications and information services . She was publishing director for the launch of VNU’s pan-European online content services, and then European editorial director. She then made the move from publishing into technology market analysis and consulting, and in 2002 co-founded Rethink Technology Research with Peter White. Rethink specializes in trends and business models for wireless, converged and quad play operators round the world and the technologies that support them. Caroline’s role is to head up the wireless side of the business, leading the creation of research, newsletters and consulting services focused on mobile platforms and operator models. In this role, she has become a highly recognized authority on 4G systems such as LTE and WiMAX, and a prolific speaker at industry events. Consulting and research clients come from major mobile operators, the wireless supply chain and financial institutions.