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  • Mark Middleton

No matter the justification, Wi-Fi offload is now strategic for mobile operators

We have seen Wi-Fi come full circle. At first it was shunned by mobile network operators as a threat to 3G. Now, Wi-Fi is being embraced by mobile operators as 3G’s ally. We’ve all seen the annual Cisco visual networking index, which forecasts mobile data usage to grow 13x between 2012 and 2017. This is believable and, historically, Cisco’s forecasts have proven correct (or undercooked). Mobile video streaming is driving this growth. We just need to look at how people use their smartphones and tablets to access data-intensive video apps such as YouTube, Vimeo, Skype & FaceTime. Historically, this was done at home, at work, or in a cafe and always on a Wi-Fi or fixed network. Nowadays, people are streaming video content via 3G while outside the relative price safety of the home or office Wi-Fi – they are all over town, indoors and outdoors. This costs the users more on their 3G plans, but also loads up the 3G networks and in more and more places, some unpredictable and much of it indoors. This is especially so in areas of high congestion. To deal with this, mobile operators are forced to either upgrade capacity on their networks (which comes at great cost (more spectrum, new technology, license costs, new sites, small cells) or face subscriber wrath from poor performance on the 3G network, which can result in an increase in subscriber churn.

Source: Infonetics Research, Carrier Wi-Fi Offload and Hotspot Strategies, April 2012

A strategic alternative (or complement), that both improves subscriber satisfaction and reduces the load on the legacy 3G networks, is for the mobile network operator to offer Wi-Fi offload as a service to subscribers.

This offload service is primarily for smartphones and tablets. Gone are the days where Wi-Fi was solely used on laptops hogging precious table space in cafes. Now, every smartphone and most tablets, no matter the OS or device vendor, comes with 3G and Wi-Fi. Subscribers already use Wi-Fi at home and at work seamlessly. For a Wi-Fi offload proposition to succeed and be useful, the user experience has to be the same or better than Wi-Fi at home. The value proposition, from a price and utility perspective, has to hit the right spot for consumers. Price wise, it should be made available for a small free for those on pre-pay or low value post pay plans and it should be included in high value post pay plans. Such a strategy can help grow that all-important ARPU as subscribers chose to upgrade plans to receive the Wi-Fi benefit. In addition to the right price, it has to be easy to use and access. This means that the Wi-Fi service needs to be available nearly ubiquitously in the right places, and also easy to access and connect to. Seamless access is achieved using industry standard authentication methods that link to mobile network operator subscriber registers. This is done in the background by an application on the device or directly with the SIM in certain situations. Wi-Fi network access and data offload has to be seamless and transparent to the subscriber – just like it is at home.

Large-scale Wi-Fi networks provide more predictability of coverage for subscribers. A disjoined network of small cafe-sized hotspots just doesn’t cut it any more. What is required are multi-band (2.4GHz and 5GHz), multi-radio (3 to 4 radios per node) wireless networks that provide 3 dimensional indoor and outdoor Wi-Fi coverage with hand-off between cells. This will help mobile operators offload data traffic in more and more places, and give subscribers more and more predictability of coverage and service expectation.

For more on large-scale metro Wi-Fi networks see: Perth CBD Gets Free Wi-Fi.

For more on and what mobile operators can use to build these networks, see X3-N-XX multi-band, multi-radio wireless node.

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