Windows 8: Go mobile with Windows 8

Many of the improvements made to Windows 8 are designed to streamline and help you manage mobile connectivity.

Billy Anders

People want the same level of mobility on their PCs as they get on their smartphones. It’s unlikely that they just want to connect to the Internet. They want to surf, socialize and explore. They want their PCs connected and ready to use whenever and wherever they are.

The fundamentals of wireless connectivity in the reengineered Windows 8 go beyond incremental improvements. This is a good example of technology that requires new hardware to work in concert with new software to realize its full potential. For true mobility, Wi-Fi alone won’t be enough. Therefore, there’s fully developed and integrated Mobile Broadband (MB) within Windows 8. That connectivity exists right alongside Wi-Fi.

Windows 7 had MB, but there were often a number of hurdles to overcome before connecting. You needed the requisite MB hardware (such as an MB dongle or embedded module and SIM) and data plan. You also needed to locate and install third-party device drivers—and in some cases software—before getting your first connection.

If your device drivers and mobile software weren’t available locally, you usually had to find another connection type (most likely Wi-Fi) to the Internet to find them. This was a sizable hurdle to connecting with MB, right when you most needed that connection.

To eliminate the guesswork in locating and installing device drivers for MB, the Windows 8 design team worked with mobile operator and MB hardware partners across the industry. The team designed a hardware specification that device makers can incorporate into their device hardware. Windows 8 has an in-box MB-class driver that works with all devices and eliminates the need for additional device driver software. Just plug in the device and connect. The driver stays up-to-date via Windows Update, ensuring a reliable MB experience.

The USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) recently approved the Mobile Broadband Interface Model (MBIM) specification as a standard. Major device makers have already begun adopting this standard into their device designs, including some devices designed for other OSes.

Mobile management

MB devices typically come with radio and connection management software. Device manufacturers, PC manufacturers and mobile operators all develop, distribute and support these applications for connecting to their networks, turning radios on and off, configuring connection settings, and getting contact information for help and support.

Prior to Windows 8, you needed these applications to provide functionality not native to Windows. This additional software often conflicted with the Windows Connection Manager, showing different networks, network status and a separate interface. Windows 8 eliminates this confusion by providing simple, intuitive and fully integrated radio and connection management.

New Windows 8 network settings let you turn individual radios on and off (Wi-Fi, MB or Bluetooth), as well as disable all radios at once with the new “airplane mode.” Windows 8 also gives you native radio management to eliminate conflicts and confusion. It provides a consistent experience for controlling your radios without installing additional software. This is new for PCs, although it has obviously long been available on today’s mobile phones.

The new wireless network settings in Windows 8 let you see and connect to all available MB and Wi-Fi networks from one convenient interface. This interface is consistent, so you don’t have to worry about to which network you want to connect. Windows 8 does this by starting with the correct default behaviors. Then it gets smarter by learning your network preferences over time.

One of those default behaviors is to prioritize Wi-Fi networks over broadband whenever one of your preferred Wi-Fi networks is available. Wi-Fi networks are typically faster with lower latency and higher data caps (if they aren’t free). When you connect to a Wi-Fi network, you automatically disconnect from your MB network. When appropriate, Windows 8 also powers down the MB device, which increases battery life. If there’s no preferred Wi-Fi network available, you’re automatically reconnected to your preferred MB network.

To ensure you connect to the correct network when there are multiple networks available, Windows 8 maintains an ordered list of your preferred networks based on your explicit connect and disconnect actions, as well as the network type. For example, if you manually disconnect from a network, Windows 8 will no longer automatically connect to that network. If you decide to disconnect from one network and connect to another, Windows 8 will move the new network higher in your preferred networks list. Windows 8 automatically learns your preferences in order to manage this list for you.

When you resume from standby, Windows 8 can reconnect you to your preferred Wi-Fi networks faster by optimizing operations in the networking stack. It will provide your network list, connection information and hints to your Wi-Fi adapter. So, when your PC resumes from standby, your Wi-Fi adapter already has all the information it needs to connect to your preferred Wi-Fi networks.

This means you can reconnect your PC to a Wi-Fi network from standby in about a second. You’ll often reconnect before your display is even ready. You don’t have to do anything special for this. Windows 8 just learns which networks you prefer and manages everything for you. This was a major part of the architectural work the Windows 8 team did in the networking stack and with its hardware partners.

Connecting to mobile broadband

Even with its broad availability, Wi-Fi by itself doesn’t enable the ubiquitous Internet access that users increasingly want. True mobility requires MB, which provides connectivity over cellular networks (the same networks as your smartphone). However, just including MB in Windows 8 wasn’t enough. Connecting to MB had to be simpler, more intuitive and more like Wi-Fi.

MB is fully integrated into Windows 8. When you’re ready to connect to an MB network, simply insert your MB device or SIM card into your Windows 8 PC, and Windows 8 takes care of the setup.

If you have a carrier-unlocked MB device that supports carrier switching (which may be the case for most MB users outside the United States), Windows 8 has native support that lets you select and connect to any supported carrier from within the Windows interface.

You no longer have to install any drivers, or a radio and connection manager. Windows 8 also automatically identifies which mobile operator is associated with your device (or SIM card). It will then brand it in the Windows Connection Manager with the mobile operator’s logo, configure the PC for connecting to the mobile operator’s network and download the operator’s MB app (if it has one) from the Windows Store.

If you purchased and activated a data plan along with your SIM or MB device, all you need to do is connect to the network. Then Windows 8 gets out of the way and lets you do what you want to do.

If you don’t already have a data plan and would like to purchase one, simply click the “Connect” button for the mobile operator you want. Windows 8 automatically directs you to that operator’s MB app or Web site, where you can select a data plan (for example, a time-based, limit-based or subscription-based plan). 

The new AT&T MB app walks you through purchasing a data plan. After you’ve purchased your plan, your mobile operator provisions your PC over the air for its network, including information about your data plan details and Wi-Fi hotspots.

Behind the scenes, Windows 8 identifies the MB subscriber information and looks up the mobile operator in the new Access Point Name (APN) database. Then it pre-provisions the system to connect to the operator’s network. Meanwhile, your core connection experience stays the same.

The operator’s MB app is then made available via the “View my account” link, or from the app’s tile on the Start screen. There, you can check and see how much data you’ve used, pay your bill, manage your account and get customer support.

Avoid ‘bill shock’

Many of you have read headlines about people receiving huge bills from their mobile operators. The industry has termed this “bill shock.” The problem has received enough attention that certain agencies have begun taking regulatory steps to ask mobile operators to alert their customers when their data usage reaches a certain threshold.

Mobile operators all have different ways of responding when subscribers exceed their data usage allotment. An operator may block your Internet access, throttle (slow down) your data speed, or simply begin charging you per kilobyte or megabyte. If you’re unaware that you’re beyond your data usage limit, you’ll likely continue using your data plan and rack up additional charges. This can result in bill shock.

Prior to Windows 8, the Windows OS maintained consistent behavior on all types of networks relative to bandwidth usage. Windows 8 takes the network cost into consideration. MB networks most likely have restrictive data caps with higher overage costs than Wi-Fi. Windows 8 will adjust networking behavior with these metered networks accordingly.

Windows 8 automatically disconnects from MB and connects you to your preferred Wi-Fi networks whenever they’re available. This reduces your data usage on MB when possible. Because a number of people use public Wi-Fi, Windows 8 includes support for popular Wi-Fi hotspot authentication types, including Wireless Internet Service Provider roaming (WISPr), Extensible Authentication Protocol (EAP)-SIM/AKA/AKA Prime (SIM-based authentication) and EAP-TTLS (popular on university campuses).

Windows 8 manages your authentication when you come within range of a Wi-Fi network that uses one of these methods, so you won’t have to re-authenticate each time (for instance, by going to a Web page). This means you get the same automatic behavior at a public Wi-Fi hotspot as you would at your home or office.

On a PC with both MB and Wi-Fi, Windows 8 will move you from MB to the less-costly Wi-Fi network automatically whenever it’s available. This again reduces your MB usage and your potential for bill shock.

Another way Windows 8 optimizes your bandwidth usage is by changing the Windows Update download behavior. With automatic updating, Windows Update will defer the background download of all updates until you connect to a non-metered network, such as your home broadband connection.

In that case, Windows Update will download the update regardless of the network type. You can always override the deferred download by launching Windows Update and manually initiating the update download at a more convenient time. Again, you are in full control of your device.

Most fixed-line broadband plans also have data caps and overage fees. Those data caps are typically much higher than MB. Therefore, Windows 8 wouldn’t change the behavior for these connections. You’re always in control and can always mark any wireless network as metered or unmetered by selecting “reduce data usage” in the right-click (or tap and hold) menu for that network.

Windows applications need to behave well on metered networks, so there’s a new set of developer APIs within the ConnectionCost class of the Windows.Networking.Connectivity namespace. If you’re an application developer, you should leverage these APIs and adapt the behavior of your app. You could allow a low-definition versus high-definition video stream, or a header-only versus full-sync of e-mail, depending on the network type. This adaptive behavior is critical, as it results in actual cost savings.

Even with Windows and other applications behaving smartly on the network, you might still want to know how much data you’ve consumed. Windows 8 provides local data usage counters within the network settings. These counters provide real-time local data usage estimates for Wi-Fi and MB network connections.

The local counters keep track of the amount of data used on each individual network type so you don’t have to. You can reset the counter whenever you want. This can be useful if you want to monitor your usage month-to-month or even within a session. Although you should think of the local data counters as a quick way to determine your usage, they’re not a substitute for what mobile operators will report. This amount may vary slightly, and should be available in the operator’s app.

Another way Windows 8 helps you manage your MB data usage is by letting mobile operators alert you as you approach your bandwidth cap. Some countries have already begun to mandate that operators send messages to subscribers as they approach their bandwidth cap, or once they begin roaming to a different network. The mobile operator may send you a Short Message Service (SMS) or Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) alert as you approach your bandwidth cap The MB operator’s app notifies you and updates its Start screen tile.

The Windows 8 Task Manager provides more granular information if you want to know how much data a particular app has consumed on the network. You can see the approximate active and historical data consumption of any process over metered and non-metered networks. With this information, you can take control by identifying which apps are consuming the most bandwidth and taking action if needed.

Windows 8 is designed with mobility in mind. The experience with getting and staying connected across MB and Wi-Fi networks has been greatly simplified.

Billy Anders

Billy Anders is group manager for Wireless and Mobility in Windows engineering. He has program management responsibility for Wi-Fi, Mobile Broadband/Cellular, Proximity, HTTP, and core wireless connectivity technologies, scenarios and devices for Windows. He lives in the Puget Sound area with his wife, sons Billy and Jacob, where he enjoys fitness, outdoor photography, traveling and food.