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Aruba Air Pass: The Bridge from Wi-Fi 6 to 5G

By Stuart Strickland, Distinguished Technologist in the CTO team
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Aruba Air Pass brings seamless cellular roaming to private enterprise networks with pre-negotiated operator agreements and a globally-accessible, secure authentication hub.

This week, we announce Aruba Air Pass, a new service to automatically and securely authenticate guests with public cellular network credentials on private enterprise Wi-Fi networks. Built on the technical foundations of Passpoint® and Wi-Fi Calling, Aruba Air Pass creates a roaming network across the Aruba enterprise customer footprint, extending cellular coverage and enhancing the visitor and subscriber experience. With Aruba Air Pass, subscribers of any participating mobile network will enjoy seamless and secure guest access to Wi-Fi networks in all participating enterprise venues.

Aruba Air Pass marks an end to indoor cellular coverage gaps, an end to insecure open guest networks, and an end to the friction and hassle of manually hunting for Wi-Fi networks and jumping through the hoops of captive portals. But it also marks the beginning of a new kind of relationship between private enterprises and mobile network operators. Transforming this relationship is both an essential near-term aspect of Aruba Air Pass and foundational to its long-term strategic objectives.

Unlocking the Full Potential of Passpoint and Wi-Fi Calling
As technologies, Passpoint and Wi-Fi Calling have both been around for a long time and enjoy widespread support among mobile network operators. Wi-Fi Calling is a mechanism for placing and receiving cellular calls and text messages over a Wi-Fi Internet connection. It is widely supported by over 120 mobile network operators in 47 countries worldwide and is well-established as an effective mechanism for filling cellular coverage gaps indoors.[i] In fact, Wi-Fi Calling works so well that its adoption virtually eliminated the market for in-home femtocells. But Wi-Fi Calling depends upon first finding and getting onto a Wi-Fi network. That’s where Passpoint comes in.

Passpoint is a certification program of the Wi-Fi Alliance and the foundation of the Wireless Broadband Alliance’s Next Generation Hotspot interoperability initiative. Mobile phones with operator-issued Passpoint profiles are constantly on the lookout for Passpoint-capable Wi-Fi networks. Passpoint is supported by major North American operators, a growing number of operators globally, and all major mobile handset manufacturers. Aruba infrastructure equipment has long been Passpoint-certified. However, while the individual components have reached a critical mass, the absence of scalable mechanisms to create and manage complex roaming relationships and to convey authentication information among the many thousands of individual enterprise venues and scores of relevant mobile network operators has hindered support for Passpoint in private enterprise networks.

Aruba Air Pass Network Architecture

Aruba Air Pass Network Architecture

Aruba Air Pass leverages the Passpoint profiles and cellular credentials already pre-installed or pushed by mobile network operators, the Wi-Fi CERTIFIED Passpoint infrastructure equipment already installed in Aruba’s enterprise customer venues, and an existing ecosystem for inter-operator authentication. To this, Aruba Air Pass adds a globally-accessible, secure authentication hub to aggregate and scalably manage control-plane signaling between participating venues and mobile operator partners, design guides for Aruba customer deployments to ensure adequate local resource provisioning and a positive guest experience, and pre-negotiated roaming agreements with mobile operators. Because Aruba Air Pass opens a communication link between the mobile operator and the local enterprise network, it can also overcome a major gap in Wi-Fi Calling by giving operators visibility into the location and quality of the local network connections, allowing them to make more intelligent, closed-loop decisions when handing over between cellular and Wi-Fi coverage areas.

The Value of Aruba Air Pass to Enterprises and Mobile Network Operators
Aruba Air Pass develops a mutually beneficial model for the relationships between enterprises and mobile operators. To the enterprise, Aruba Air Pass provides a hassle-free, cost-effective, neutral host resolution of indoor cellular coverage gaps. It fully leverages existing investments in Wi-Fi infrastructure to enable consistent guest experiences across multiple sites while also improving analytics by increasing the proportion of visitors associated with the local network. Aruba Air Pass further provides the enterprise with a framework for authentication of non-cellular credentials, enabling integration of network access with customer loyalty programs and cross-authentication among strategic partners.

For mobile network operators, Aruba Air Pass provides access to Aruba’s substantial global footprint of commercial real estate, spanning corporate enterprise, retail, hospitality, health care, education and large public venues. Aruba Air Pass represents a cost-effective alternative to DAS domestically and to international roaming fees abroad. By curating a portfolio of high-quality managed enterprise networks, Aruba Air Pass delivers a reliable subscriber experience with additional insights into local network resources and Wi-Fi neighbor cell information to improve the quality, continuity and consistency of subscriber experience across cellular and Wi-Fi networks.

Aruba Air Pass Builds a Bridge from Wi-Fi 6 to 5G Networks and Services
Earlier in this series, I described how enterprise Wi-Fi is poised to become the on-ramp to 5G networks and services. Within 3GPP, the standards organization responsible for defining 5G, interfaces have been developed to deliver 5G services over Wi-Fi in a manner roughly analogous to Wi-Fi Calling. However, just as Wi-Fi Calling takes for granted that a subscriber has already found a suitable Wi-Fi network, the 5G standards are silent on how a mobile device should discover and authenticate itself on a Wi-Fi network.

Aruba Air Pass closes this gap while also opening up a channel of communication between the mobile operator’s 5G network and the local, privately-managed enterprise Wi-Fi network. Through this channel, Aruba Air Pass can provide the mobile operator with visibility of quality of service and subscriber activity. In conjunction with Air Slice, a feature of Aruba’s Wi-Fi 6 offerings, an enterprise may even offer mobile operators a dedicated slice of its local network resources, with guaranteed minimum bit rates and deterministic latency. Aruba Air Pass thus puts privately-managed enterprise Wi-Fi networks in a position to serve as full-fledged roaming partners to 5G networks and enables mobile operators, in turn, to rely upon on these high-quality enterprise Wi-Fi networks as a cost-effective extension of their own 5G coverage.

Passpoint® is a registered trademark of the Wi-Fi Alliance.