Browserless Wi-Fi access is desperately needed

I was sitting in the Newark airport after a seven-hour flight from Amsterdam, waiting for a flight to Boston when I began talking to a 12-year old boy who was trying to gain access to the airport’s Wi-Fi network through his Nintendo DS portable gaming device. Unfortunately one needs a browser to type in the username and password to get into the Boingo network.I was sitting in the Newark airport after a seven-hour flight from Amsterdam, waiting for a flight to Boston, when I began talking to a 12-year old boy who was trying to gain access to the airport’s Wi-Fi network through his Nintendo DS portable gaming device.

Unfortunately one needs a browser to type in the username and password to get into the Newark airport’s Wi-Fi network. I know this because I had my iBook open and was attempting to share the Wi-Fi connection with the boy without success.

Then we got to talking about where he finds Wi-Fi access. He says that he does not like McDonalds, but finds himself there more often because McDonalds has a deal with Nintendo which allows Nintendo DS users to use their devices at their fast food restaurants. They don’t require a login; you are automatically connected if you have a DS. He says he uses the McDonalds connection to play games with people who are in other places as far away as Japan. H also told me that he finds himself going to McDonalds more often (despite his lack of enthusiasm for their wares).

This got me thinking about the way service providers and cities set up networks that rely too much on the browser interface to give people wireless broadband access. In the past year, I’ve seen more people, not just kids, using non-laptop, non-web browsing devices. Wi-Fi has so many uses beyond web browsing that it’s really time to set up networks that allow one to gain access without having to type in a username and password in a browser screen. This is very irritating on a tiny device like a Wi-Fi enabled mobile phone and totally impossible on a Nintendo DS which has no browser at all.

Comments

  1. Yes, this is a real problem, I use google’s gmail application on my phone, but I can’t really connect via wifi in many places because I would have to authenticate. While my phone does have a browser and I can authenticate that way to browse (it’s still a pain) for email I can’t.

    My employer (university) rolled out public wifi, and it’s free for anyone, but they still require you to log in. I’m sure no one even thought of the problems it creates, but they are very real.

  2. Most of the larger WiFi networks (i.e. T-Mobile, AT&T WiFi, FON, etc.) support WISPr authentication for “Smart Clients”, as described in the Wi-Fi Alliance document referenced below. The problem you describe is exactly the scenario WISPr authentication solves. Perhaps you could use this blog to encourage non-compliant captive portal implementations and devices to add WISPr support too.

    Unfortunately, the Wi-Fi Alliance doesn’t make it easy to get to the WISPr specification — here’s a link that Google found: http://www.ebusinessforum.gr/engine/index.php?op=modload&modname=Downloads&action=downloadsviewfile&ctn=500&language=el

  3. For providers, this is where the gold is, because there will be a lot more smaller screens being used than laptop users, and the more potential for subscription business, and more impressions for advertising.

  4. Robert A. Rosenberg says

    >”My employer (university) rolled out public wifi, and it’s free for anyone, but they still require you to log in. I’m sure no one even thought of the problems it creates, but they are very real.”

    What is the login info that this system requires you to provide? IOW: Do you have to have a free account to use the WiFi network (and thus need to first register)? If so, why not just do the same type of thing as is done to restrict router access to certain devices – Register the device’s MAC address with the router. If you have a non-Browser type unit, you supply your WiFi MAC address to the registration system and it will serve as your logon authentication credentials in lieu of a filled in browser logon screen.

  5. I want to mention that Devicescape Software is offering a solution to the problem of getting new types of devices onto public Wi-Fi networks without requiring a browser-based login (full disclosure: I work for Devicescape). We provide a small device software client that works in conjunction with a web service which we operate. Once you set up your device with our service, whenever it’s in the presence of a public network it will login automatically with no intervention needed by the user. We support both free and commercial networks, including munis operated by EarthLink and MetroFi, and a growing collection of universities.

    You can download the client for WiFi-enabled Nokia phones and Internet tablets, Windows Mobile phones and PDAs, certain Linksys VOIP phones, as well as Windows and Mac PCs. We’re also working with device manufacturers to have the client software built into devices so that handsets, portable game systems, cameras, GPS systems and so on are ready to go out of the box.

    Check out http://www.devicescape.com to learn more and try it out on your device.

  6. Esme,

    You could check out how Eduroam solves exactly this problem for universities around the globe. http://www.eduroam.org

    They deploy 802.1x authentication mechanism, which is standard and widely implementable for both fixed Ethernet and WiFi networks. As 802.1 generic it could also work over technologies like WiMax.

    I can fire up my laptop in a university participating in the Eduroam network and the mechanism automatically checks my credentials against the RADIUS database at the home university.

  7. Sonal Tambe says

    Hi David,

    Is 1.0 the latest version of WISPr spec? Is it being modified? Which companies (ISPs/wifi devices) are supporting it?

    Thanks.