Wi-Fi Networks: More Than a Place to Unload

Wi-Fi Networks: More Than a Place to UnloadI recently attended the Wi-Fi Global Congress, a conference in London put on by the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA). The focus was promoting and enabling carrier-grade Wi-Fi that is secure, seamless, and interoperable between networks. It was clear from the conference program, and the large number of wireless service and equipment providers in attendance, that Wi-Fi remains a highly relevant, complementary extension to cellular networks and an important part of the mobile broadband experience. However, many challenges remain with Wi-Fi, including seamless handover between 3G/4G and Wi-Fi, subscriber management, policy enforcement, session mobility, and more.

Key Takeaways from the Conference
There were several sessions in two tracks—business and technical—addressing these challenges. Popular topics included Wi-Fi offload, Municipal Wi-Fi (called Muni-Fi), wholesale Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi as a value-added service for non-Telco providers, and next-generation Wi-Fi.

Here are a few interesting ideas I took away from the conference:

  1. One of the biggest problems operators face is site acquisition for Wi-Fi. In many regions, operators have made “land grabs” for real estate—using Wi-Fi to stake out their position—with the intention of evolving the technology in the future.
  2. Roaming is critical to the success of Wi-Fi. The GSM network standard became the dominant network technology globally, because of worldwide roaming standards. Wi-Fi needs the same interoperability to accelerate growth across the industry. According to Wi-Fi provider iPass, 96% of travelers consider international Wi-Fi roaming to be valuable, yet only 31.7% have it.
  3. Monetization of Wi-Fi remains challenging for service providers. In the U.S. and U.K., Wi-Fi is free for 80% of subscribers while 20% pay a fee, but those numbers are reversed in the rest of the world. In addition, 83% of smartphone users now expect their carrier to bundle Wi-Fi service as part of their cellular plan.

describe the imageNext Generation Hotspot
There was also plenty of discussion around WBA Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) and Wi-Fi Alliance Passpoint™, the certification program for Hotspot 2.0 devices. Phase 1 of NGH focuses on interoperable Wi-Fi discovery and authentication of Passpoint Release 1 certified products. To date, 120 wireless products are Passpoint Release 1 certified, most of which are access points, controllers, and routers—although Samsung has a large number of certified smartphones.

Phase 2 of NGH will focus on validating and enabling credential and dynamic policy provisioning for the mobile device connection manager; the goal is to bring intelligence to the network selection and connection process for participating mobile and fixed service providers. (Note: although Phase 2-compatible solutions are not yet commercial, an early implementation of dynamic policy capability is available now from Smith Micro.)

Keep ‘Em Moving, but Be Sure to Keep ‘Em
While the initial focus on Wi-Fi for mobile operators has been to relieve network congestion with data offload to Wi-Fi, more than one conference speaker reinforced that operators must be careful to offload traffic, not the customer. There are many business cases where Wi-Fi is valuable—from cost savings on network infrastructure, to increasing coverage in buildings and entertainment venues, to creating value-plans associated with preferred Wi-Fi access points—but none of these will matter if operators alienate their subscribers.

How can operators utilize Wi-Fi without a subscriber exodus? If you have additional insights on this challenge, NGH, or the Wi-Fi Global Congress in general, please share them below.