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Carrier Wi-Fi: Always Best Connected

Heavy Lifting Analyst Notes
Heavy Lifting Analyst Notes
Heavy Lifting Analyst Notes

Wi-Fi is a great technology -- I love it. (Well, like it a lot.) So much so, in fact, that I’m leading Light Reading’s 2013 Service Provider Wi-Fi Industry Initiative. The aim of the initiative is to look at how network operators can scale and accelerate investment in Wi-Fi -- and, of course, why they should.

The technology is well suited to indoor mobile data consumption -- that much we know. And the fact that around half of smartphone data usage is already over Wi-Fi today explains why operators should engage. There's also an opportunity for operators to better exploit the product volume that characterizes the Wi-Fi ecosystem, and the Wi-Fi R&D investment paid for by other people. It's not quite a free ride, but the economics can be compelling.

Let's take it a bit easy on the hype, however, and ask why a majority of operators -- and specifically mobile operators -- haven’t yet made the big bet on Wi-Fi investments? (There are one or two notable exceptions, of course.) Fundamentally, the reason is that the way Wi-Fi works in smartphones today puts it squarely outside the mobile operator's sphere of influence.

One area that crystallizes this issue is connectivity management, and the tendency for smartphones to automatically connect to "bad Wi-Fi" that interrupts, and even breaks, the user experience. Consider the following scenarios, where a smartphone, under its own auspices, might detach itself from a functioning mobile network in favor of "broken" Wi-Fi:

  • Border conditions. Most of us will have experienced being on the very edge of Wi-Fi coverage (in the garden, example), or where there's interference from neighboring access points, and performance is poor as a result. Yet the device still reaches to connect.
  • Skinny backhaul. Wi-Fi is a high-speed radio interface (under the right conditions), but that doesn’t matter much if it's connected to a slow Internet connection. Anyone who's ever tried to use hotel Wi-Fi knows what I’m talking about.
  • On the move. Automatically connecting to known Wi-Fi SSIDs at bus stops, rail stations, traffic lights, or the like might not be the worst thing in the world, but it is annoying.
  • Overloaded networks. Where devices connect to networks that, while not saturated, may already be heavily used, resulting in poor performance for the user and everybody else attached to that access point.
  • Associated but not authorized. You’ve visited this Wi-Fi SSID in the past, so your device attaches automatically, but does not actually connect to the Internet until you log in or pay via captive portal. Again, annoying.

Scenarios such as these explain why mobile operators have preferred to take a hands-off approach and why, to date, they have tended to see Wi-Fi as a tactical rather than strategic technology. Smartphone vendors, meanwhile, have added manual on/off "Wi-Fi toggles" to their devices, and like operators, have been content to excuse themselves from getting involved in what they see as somebody else's problem.

This state of affairs is not a catastrophe, but it feels like a compromise and fudge. The solution is for operators, together with the industry at large, to work to automate network selection and connectivity management. By ensuring that users are always best connected, operators can better take advantage of Wi-Fi technology and economics.

— Gabriel Brown, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading

Psst: As part of Light Reading's 2013 Carrier Wi-Fi Industry Initiative, I'm hosting a webinar on Accelerating & Scaling Carrier Grade Wi-Fi on Tuesday, May 14, at 12 Noon EST. Click Here to Register.

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