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The Evolving Role of Wi-Fi

The week after Nokia unveiled a range of Windows Phone terminals in London, the Finnish handset giant revealed plans to establish a free Wi-Fi scheme in the same city, in partnership with Wi-Fi supplier Spectrum Interactive. If the scheme is deemed a success, the pair will roll out free Wi-Fi access across the UK capital in time for the summer Olympics next year. At first glance, the timing of the announcement sounded more like a publicity stunt than a genuine attempt to connect mobile data hungry masses.

But, in fairness to Nokia, Wi-Fi and traffic off-loading has been getting some serious traction lately; and so when the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) with some help from analysts at Informa Telecoms & Media, announced the findings of a report stating Wi-Fi hotspots would triple by the year 2015, I was not that surprised. There’s more to Nokia’s Wi-Fi scheme than a PR opportunity.

Indeed, in the short term, thanks to Nokia, UK carriers, particularly Orange whose Signal Boost service powered by Kinteto Wireless Smart Wi-Fi, provides its users with carrier class voice over IP in the parts that cellular fails to reach, might well breathe a sigh of relief. Only two months ago town mayor Boris Johnson suggested very publicly that the mobile networks in London might be so overloaded in the summer of 2012 that they were in danger of failure.

The 350 percent boom in Wi-Fi hotspots over the coming three years is being driven by smartphone and tablet ownership according to the WBA. Nokia’s decision to encourage mobile users online by subsidising free public access Wi-Fi is not driven by altruism but by a tacit acknowledgement that cellular networks are congested and the carriers’ principle means of tackling the traffic jam is by imposing usage caps, this is a scenario in which nobody wins. Nokia needs people to buy its phones and download its apps.

This sort of metro Wi-Fi project is not new of course. Schemes like it have been trialled with varying levels of success in numerous US cities. However, Nokia throwing its considerable weight behind a project like this will certainly encourage others to follow suit. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that one of the major internet players could also get involved. Google needs eye-balls and since cellular networks are struggling to deliver and Wi-Fi is a suitable alternative, I would not be surprised to see G-fi or even Apple i-Fi hotspots popping up all over the place.

Medium term, the carriers are faced with a dilemma. They are practically mandated by their own shareholders’ requirements for growth to invest what will be billions of dollars in 4G licences and network infrastructure roll out with no guarantees of enjoying healthy returns. Meanwhile, the device manufacturers and other OTT net-heads are busy creating ubiquitous Wi-Fi coverage in densely populated areas such as city centre open spaces, transport hubs, residential and commercial zones. In addition to the rapid uptake in home and office networking.

The WBA says next generation hotspots, where users can seamlessly roam between cellular and Wi-Fi networks, are being trialled internationally. These hotzones enable the use of a subscriber’s handset SIM as authentication. This moves to eliminate existing concerns about authentication, network discovery and security.

Users do not care how they access a network in order to communicate or access content, be it cellular or via WLAN, and suppliers are making the experience more seamless all the time. Cellular services run the risk of being marginalised. Traditional mobile network operators are now talking openly about Wi-Fi off-loading – while talk of femtocells has all but dried up. With 802.11ac on the horizon things are looking strong for IP voice.