AT&T's network of 30,000+ hotspots is clearly part of its of its overall solution for addressing traffic growth, Kris Rinne, SVP of network technology at AT&T Labs, told attendees at the Fierce Wireless executive breakfast on Tuesday. But, like a lot of operators, AT&T is moving from using Wi-Fi solely for offload to exploring how to better integrate it with its cellular network and offer the same level of security and quality.
"As you introduce VoLTE, quality of service and more capabilities, you will need more intelligence," Rinne said. "When we talk about Wi-Fi in the small cell architecture, it's not the same thing we're doing in our venues. It's: How do I make that an intelligent selection into it?"
The carrier revealed earlier this month that it's planning to combine 3G, 4G LTE and Wi-Fi access in its radio access small cells, 40,000 of which it plans to deploy through 2015. The devices are still in the labs, where AT&T is working through the non-trivial issue of connecting mobile devices to the right network at the right time. (See 3G, 4G & Wi-Fi: AT&T Plans Small-Cell Threesome.)
Indeed, one of the biggest issues with Wi-Fi is connectivity management, according to Heavy Reading analyst Gabriel Brown, who is leading Light Reading’s 2013 Service Provider Wi-Fi Industry Initiative. (See Carrier Wi-Fi: Always Best Connected.)
"Controlling how and when a device attaches to Wi-Fi, or cellular, from the mobile core network, and then automating that procedure, will benefit the user and unlock value for mobile operators," he says. "To achieve this, operators and vendors need to bridge the 3GPP mobile and the IEEE Wi-Fi ecosystems."
They'll also have to choose between a proprietary approach or an open one. At CTIA, a number of vendors are pitching both. The big two, Ericcson and Nokia Siemens Networks, both introduced network-based, real-time steering software to help operators balance traffic on their mobile and Wi-Fi networks, which – as shows like this remind us – can also get congested. (See Ericcson Integrates Wi-Fi With Cellular.)
As Ovum Ltd. analyst Daryl Schooler points out in a research note, however, both vendors' platforms are proprietary. To use Ericsson's real-time traffic-steering software, for example, an operator must also use its mobile radio access network, Wi-Fi access points and wireless LAN controller.
Devicescape Software Inc. may be smaller, but it's taking the open approach with its network of 12 million hotspots making 1.5 billion connections per month. At the show this week, it's opening up the Magnifi client it supplies to operators like MetroPCS Inc. and Republic Wireless to CTIA attendees to connect to its 50,000 hotspots across Las Vegas. The app kicks a user back to cellular if the quality of the Wi-Fi is judged to be below 80 percent. Devicescape Chief Marketing Officer David Nowicki calls it a "quality-controlled version of Wi-Fi."
The idea of doing anything with Wi-Fi other than using it as a data catch-all is new for most operators, but it's clear from CTIA that it's now on the industry's radar. As Heavy Reading's Brown puts it, the question has moved from, "Should we engage with Wi-Fi," to "How should we engage?" The search for the answer will extend far beyond this week's conference in the desert.
— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, LightReading