The Return of Offload: Sticking Plaster or Preventative Medicine?



Mobile communications is a forward-looking industry, one which takes pride in a philosophy that the job is never done. No sooner is one network technology deployed than out pop vendors' R&D press releases, announcing they've already got started on the next addition, enhancement or generation.

To be forward-looking seems to be widely regarded as a good thing; it's about progress, striving and betterment. But it is also in the nature of the forward-looker to point towards a future solution rather than one in the present. One person's forward-looking, in other words, might be another person's procrastination.

For an industry so dependent on collaboration and standards this is particularly relevant. There's no doubting the quality of the output, but that quality derives from the years it takes to develop, refine and deploy the technology on which end users have come to be so reliant.

That reliance has in turn created smartphone users entirely lacking in the patience of the industry which serves them -- the smartphone is a product geared to instant gratification. So when the service is found wanting in the moment, the fact that the industry is busy readying the next "G" for introduction in three, four or five years offers scant consolation to the consumer.

Naturally this is less of an issue in the golden days of a new network technology, when teething problems have been dealt with and plenty of capacity headroom remains. In the warm, early glow of LTE, some operators had you believe 4G was the only connectivity their customers needed. People were apparently flinging their domestic routers out of the window!

At this point, "WiFi offload" became something of a dirty term. What self-respecting mobile operator would need to "offload" traffic to WiFi when their billion-dollar LTE network was accommodating all the market's demand for smartphone connectivity? You offload problems, not rich seams of RoI. WiFi offload was set aside like a tube of ointment used to treat a healed injury.

But some injuries recur. Like 3G before it, LTE's destiny is to become a victim of its own success, the relationship between demand and provision morphing into one of friction rather than felicity. For a number of operators' LTE networks that tipping point has now arrived, which means for others it's in the mail. And while all the good work continues on 5G, number five is not yet alive.

So how are mobile operators going to address their rediscovered pain? The big question is not whether they will return to WiFi -- they will -- it is whether they will do so strategically rather than tactically. Whether they will look for ways to ensure their injury can be kept from recurring, or whether they'll just slap on the ointment and hobble about, wincing, until things get better.

Temporary measures will be preferred by some, no doubt, but repeated patch-ups lead to faster and less retrievable decline. My bet is that you'll soon see a handful of big name operators using WiFi and offload in a strategic, preventative way -- to help build a better, wider and more consistently excellent connectivity service. To do so is to act in the moment while still being forward-looking, by protecting the customer experience against a cyclical menace.

This industry likes to solve problems with cellular technology born of decades of research, and that cannot be praised enough. But the consumer needs more, better connectivity -- now, always, everywhere -- and does not appreciate it when that connectivity degrades simply because they've been taught to use it so much.

These two realities need not be mutually exclusive, even in an era when connecting to a cellular network is no longer the primary function of what we still talk about as "mobile phones." If you think like a consumer, offload isn't offload at all. It's just another path to whatever they want or need.

Indeed, in a recent survey carried out by industry analysis provider Parks Associates, two thirds of consumers who were considering switching mobile providers rated managed access to WiFi as part of the mobile service as "very important" to their decision. Within the survey that ranked WiFi a more appealing prospect than a loyalty rewards program or the chance of an early handset upgrade, and equally attractive as the ability to retain unused data.

Consumers aren't looking forward to 5G like the industry; they're looking down at their smartphones. And it's up to operators to ensure they like what they see.

Dave Fraser, CEO, Devicescape Software

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