Despite doing a big wholesale business with the network operators, the head of the WiFi service provider Boingo isn't convinced most have a real WiFi offload strategy yet.
Rather, many wireless operators are stuck in phase one of WiFi offload, building distributed antenna systems (DAS), according to Boingo Wireless Inc. CEO David Hagan. He told analysts at the Deutsche Bank Media, Internet & Telecom Conference this week that carrier offload strategies, or diverting cellular traffic to unlicensed spectrum to alleviate network congestion, are still a year or so from fruition.
Among the big four US wireless operators, Hagan said, Verizon Wireless and AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) are the most active in DAS, but getting one of them in a network deployment almost guarantees you get the other. "They are hyper competitive about their competitor having a better user experience in major venues." Working with Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) and T-Mobile US Inc. requires more effort, but Boingo averages three carriers per DAS network it deploys. (See Carrier WiFi's Not Winning in Sports Arenas.)
That's where most of the operators are today, even if they tend to devote more time to talking about their offload strategies. Phase two is actual offload to WiFi, which Hagan said is coming, though operators will give an obtuse answer as to when. "They don't have clear strategies. Depending on which department we talk to, they have different perspectives -- some are bullish, some are not. To me, that says it's going to be another year or so before it comes to fruition."
Given how slowly he expects pure and simple offload to take off, it's easy to see why he thinks Hotspot 2.0 will take even longer. Boingo has been an early mover there. It has tested the authentication technology in 21 airports across the US, but Hagan said that, even though the technology is ready, it's -- again -- a matter of getting the operators ready. Following a productive Mobile World Congress, he thinks a number of carriers will practice with a subset of their customers soon, but deployments could be a year to 18 months away. (See Boingo Expands Hotspot 2.0 to 21 Airports and Hotspot 2.0 Makes Slow & Steady Progress.)
"It'll take one rabbit, one first mover, then the whole market will move," he said. "We can do side bets on who we think the first mover will be. But, even from a carrier perspective, I don't think it's a question of if, but when."
Hagan said that Boingo has significant DAS agreements with all four of the big carriers. It has WiFi offload deals with three of the four -- including AT&T, which has been an aggressive early mover -- and a new deal with Verizon. He identified the biggest hurdles with all the operators as the need to map out their corporate strategies and figure out if they bundle WiFi access with data plans, make it incremental revenue, or offer free access. (See AT&T: Hotspot 2.0 Integral to Multimode Small Cells.)
"They need to work through the mechanics and marketing strategy with what they want to do with WiFi, but everything else is set," he said.
— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading