Google is working with Wi-Fi equipment maker Ruckus Wireless to build a large-scale Wi-Fi network in the cloud off of which any business could hang its wireless routers, according to a source familiar with the project who asked not to be named.

Google's plans to supply Wi-Fi services to small and medium-sized businesses was first reported by The Information on Wednesday. But I have gotten more details on what its network would look like and how it would be rolled out. Google has been working closely with Ruckus, trialing a new software-based wireless controller that virtualizes the management functions of the Wi-Fi network in the cloud, according to my source. The end result would be a nationwide — or even global — network that any business could join and any Google customer could access.

Both Google and Ruckus declined to comment.

Photo: Flickr / Affiliate

Photo: Flickr / Affiliate

In any large-scale Wi-Fi network, such as one rolled out in a corporate headquarters, or in an airport, a Wi-Fi controller manages access to hundreds of different Wi-Fi access points, allowing devices to connect to the network as a whole not just individual routers. By putting the controller in the cloud, Ruckus removes it from the physical network and can hook tens or even hundreds of thousands of individual access points scattered throughout the world onto the same virtual network.

For Google that means it won't have to manage thousands of individual local business wireless networks when it starts offering up Wi-Fi services. As retail businesses attach their access points into the cloud they all become part of the same centrally managed service. Google could serve up en masse cloud-based applications such as advertising and point-of-sale payment services, which would feed them to all devices connected to Ruckus's access points.

From the end-consumer's point of view, the whole thing looks like one big home network: once you're logged in securely at your dentist's office, you're logged in when you step into the bakery down the street or a restaurant two states over. From Google's point of view, this could become a key component in any plan to offer an alternate wireless data service that circumvents the traditional mobile carrier industry.

A Ruckus outdoor access point (Source: Ruckus Wireless)

A Ruckus outdoor access point (Source: Ruckus Wireless)

The source told me that he couldn't provide a timeline on when Google would launch its business Wi-Fi services – The Information said it could be as soon as this summer – but was able to confirm Google for now isn't working with any other Wi-Fi equipment vendors besides Ruckus on the project. That could change by launch, but while big companies like Cisco System and Ericsson and small outfits like Aerohive and Cloud4Wi are working on similar technologies, none of their equipment is interoperable. If Google wants to create a single unified network, it may well have to go with a single Wi-Fi equipment maker.

Our source also confirmed most of the details of The Information's earlier report:

  • Google will offer the service to businesses for free as long as they agree to join its public network, though businesses will have to supply their own broadband connections.
  • Hotspot 2.0 will have a big role to play in the network, connecting smartphones and tablets automatically and securely to any Google-powered access point, much like they would connect to their mobile carrier's 3G of 4G network.
  • Google will be able to provide analytics to businesses about consumers that use networks, separating out location-specific information from the data collected by the virtual network as a whole.

Google, however, will not sell Wi-Fi equipment directly to businesses as The Information suggested. Instead businesses will be responsible for supplying their own Wi-Fi access points, the source said. That means many businesses will have to replace their existing Wi-Fi gear; today Ruckus's virtual controller only works with Ruckus access points.

This post was updated at 4:15 OM PT to add Google's response