Mobile offloading is on the rise. According to the latest Cisco Visual Networking Index (VNI), 46% of data traffic was offloaded from mobile networks in 2014, and Cisco is betting that number will grow to 54% by 2019. (See Cisco's Visual Networking Index.)
The statistics are fascinating, but they also deserve a little closer examination. When Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) defines mobile offloading in the VNI report, the company is referring to traffic that is shifted from a traditional cellular network to either a WiFi network or a small cell access point beyond the regular cellular network. As things stand today, WiFi is taking the lion's share of offloaded traffic. However, small cells and alternative 4G connections may have a greater role to play in the future.
In particular, there is momentum gathering behind the idea of bringing LTE to unlicensed spectrum (LTE-U) as a WiFi alternative. Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) and Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) pioneered the concept in late 2013, and T-Mobile US Inc. plans to begin production trials this year with Ericsson small cells that use LTE-U. If the technology progresses as expected, LTE-U could become a compelling option for traffic offloaded from mobile networks. (See LTE Small Cells Set to Be Big in 2015 and Ericsson Unveils LTE-U Plans for Small Cells.)
It's not only wireless carriers that are interested in LTE-U either. CableLabs is participating in LTE-U development and hoping to bring some of the traditional advantages of WiFi to the LTE-U protocol. Notably, CEO Phil McKinney told Light Reading that CableLabs currently has a proposal in with the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) , a consortium of seven telecommunications standards organizations, on how LTE can do better with spectrum sharing in unlicensed frequencies.
McKinney is highly optimistic about the technology's potential -- so much so that he predicted that much of the offloaded traffic on WiFi today could shift over to LTE-U in the next five to ten years.
— Mari Silbey, special to Light Reading