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Amid 5G Buildout, AT&T Offloads More Traffic to WiFi

Mike Dano
2/20/2019
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AT&T said it expanded its WiFi offloading agreement with Boingo from a handful of locations to more than 80. Those locations include major US airports and other locations where AT&T needs additional network capacity.

The move is noteworthy considering AT&T is also currently pulling a number of other levers to create additional capacity on its network, including deploying more spectrum (700MHz, AWS and WCS), densifying its network (through the installation of small cells and other network equipment) and deploying new, more efficient network technology (5G).

To be clear, AT&T is no stranger to WiFi. The company purchased WiFi provider Wayport way back in 2008, and the provider operates thousands of public WiFi hotspots. Further, AT&T and other operators are deploying LAA technology for smartphone users; the technology essentially expands an LTE signal in licensed spectrum into the unlicensed spectrum bands typically used by WiFi, a move that improves smartphone users' speeds and operators' network capacity.

But AT&T's agreement with Boingo signals that AT&T is looking for additional network capacity in the high-traffic areas where Boingo operates its public WiFi network. Those locations stretch from Chicago O'Hare International airport to Los Angeles International airport.

AT&T's offload agreement with Boingo works through a technology called Passpoint. First released in 2012 by the WiFi Alliance with support from the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), Passpoint was designed to allow cellular network operators to offload their network traffic onto WiFi networks. Boingo is one of the leading supporters of Passpoint technology in the United States, and already has similar WiFi offload agreements with Sprint and cable company Charter (which last year launched its Spectrum Mobile MVNO service, which makes heavy use of WiFi offloading in order to reduce the amount of money Charter must pay to Verizon for wholesale MVNO access to the company's cellular network).

"The move is part of AT&T’s strategic network management initiative to help accommodate rising network traffic," explained Boingo CEO David Hagan. "Now what they have the ability to do is move traffic onto WiFi when they need the extra capacity, and reduce traffic on the WiFi when they've got plenty of macro or DAS [Distributed Antenna System] capacity. And that goes back to the understanding that WiFi as a network alternative is now part of the core network. It's part of how they manage traffic, how they move the traffic around, how they manage the customer experience."

Hagan added that Passpoint technology is now available in the vast majority of iOS and Android phones, and so switching on a Passpoint offloading service is relatively straightforward. (Hagan said it took Boingo less than a week to expand the companies' relationship to cover more venues.)


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AT&T had long been rumored to be working with Boingo on WiFi offloading at a handful of locations, but today's announcement between the two companies signals AT&T's decision to offload its traffic onto all of Boingo's WiFi operations. The move also comes shortly after Boingo tweaked the pricing and traffic management options for its offloading service in part to essentially cap the amount of money that its customers like AT&T would pay for offloading.

"The carriers do not like to see a runaway meter, if you will, you know, a toll meter, where they can't kind of manage traffic and control traffic," Hagan said last year during Boingo's earnings conference call with analysts, according to a transcript of his remarks. "So we've done some pricing mechanisms that we've talked about in the past, I believe. So we have some volume commitments, we have -- we put caps in place, so that a carrier can't get upside down on an individual customer in a location."

Boingo reported $11.7 million from its WiFi offloading business in its most recent quarter, up from $8.3 million in the same quarter a year prior, and the operation accounted for 18% of Boingo's total revenues.

Hagan said that Boingo is now looking to ink WiFi offloading agreements with other wireless network operators like T-Mobile and Verizon.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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