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The evolving role of Wi-Fi – pt II

Back in November, I shared my views on the evolving roll of Wi-Fi. Those views followed an announcement, by Nokia, of plans for a network of free to access outdoor hotspots in central London. This story dovetailed nicely alongside fresh research, by analyst house Informa Telecoms & Media, stating that global public Wi-Fi hotspots are set to triple in number by 2015.

But public hotspots are only half of the story. Recently Dr. Kim Larsen with T-Mobile Netherlands posited that 80 percent of a user’s traffic originated from just two sites – the home and office.  Thus to really capture the benefit of Wi-Fi, mobile operators must move indoors. 

Moving indoors, but staying with events in the UK – which, with a relatively small land area to cover and a fairly wealthy population, reports way over 100 percent mobile penetration – the country regulator (Ofcom) stated 66 percent of households have fixed broadband access, and 75 percent of those homes have Wi-Fi. And that number is only ever going to rise.

The story is broadly similar in metro areas of North America. Imagine your average neighbourhood street, where the majority of homes have Wi-Fi and broadband, and in those homes the residents are busy accessing a wide range of data hungry services via smartphones.

Some will think the carriers are looking at all that missing data and seeing missing dollars. But, in truth, people are only consuming data in such quantities over Wi-Fi because it is ‘free’ – or more accurately because the ISPs’ version of all-you-can-eat is much closer to the truth than the mobile carriers’ version. If Wi-Fi data was charged and capped like 3G now is, few would be tempted away from their connections in the home. The carriers are not missing dollars, they’re off-loading their overloaded 3G networks.

Rather than being envious of all those missed bytes, the cellular carriers are enjoying savings related to off-loading – which is, of course, driving the carriers towards more proactive off-load solutions everywhere else. The continued growth of domestic Wi-Fi means mobile carriers are able to keep serving customers at competitive price points. Operators are no longer looking at ways of competing with Wi-Fi, they are looking at ways of working alongside it.

Enter LTE – the next generation high-speed mobile data network. There are many similarities between LTE and Wi-Fi, at the radio layer along with higher level aspects such as both being flat IP networks.  As operators look to build out LTE networks, Wi-Fi’s role as the ‘small cell’ in the home is going to grow.

Rather than trying to distribute LTE femtocells, mobile operators would be better served turning the existing Wi-Fi in the home into an extension of the mobile network.  Rather than viewing Wi-Fi as a technology for off-loading, it becomes a tool for delivering the mobile operator’s services… or ‘on-loading’, if you will. Subscribers can and should be able to connect to mobile service over Wi-Fi the same way they will use LTE. 

LTE is going to be costly and it won’t come over night, and it won’t provide measurable improvements of quality of experience in the home for mobile users. In the meantime, broadband access will keep spreading and getting faster, and domestic Wi-Fi will become even more prevalent, as will data and voice off-loading. Wi-Fi, operating as small cells, rather than being made redundant by LTE, will play a key part in successful service delivery