AT&T Improves WiFi Connectivity for iPhone Users

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AT&T announced changes to its WiFi connection process Wednesday that should improve the user experience for the company’s iPhone-using customers and may relieve the strain on its 3G network that some believe has been a result of the iPhone’s unprecedented popularity.

The press release Wednesday coincided with Apple’s release of 3.0 firmware for its family of mobile phones and said AT&T will support “auto-authentication” for customers with qualifying data plans.

Previously, iPhone users gained “free” access to AT&T’s 20,000 nationwide WiFi Hot Spots through a cumbersome process involving the keying-in of an account number and responding to an AT&T generated text message with an authentication key. Now iPhone users running 3.0 will be joined to available AT&T WiFi signals automatically after they have connected to the network for the first time.

The improved ease of connecting to WiFi will be welcome to many from a customer service standpoint, but AT&T’s motivations behind the policy change may not be entirely altruistic. In the wake of many complaints about its 3G network being unable to meet the service demands of iPhone users, enabling automatic handoff between 3G and WiFi should reduce demands on the 3G network at a time when AT&T claims it is dancing as fast as it can to ensure robust connectivity for its customers.

There has been some speculation that AT&T may be using the 802.21 protocol to accomplish the handoffs. 802.21 is an IEEE emerging standard that supports algorithms enabling seamless handover between networks of the same type as well as handover between different network types.

If such is indeed the case, the implications for developers of mobile VoIP applications may be profound since the primary limitation of mobile VoIP has been one of overcoming the handoff problem.

Which is not to suggest that AT&T might unwittingly be assisting its VoIP competitors, only that solutions to the handoff issue could center around wider support for 802.21 by service providers and hardware manufacturers in the future.

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