The days of moving blissfully unaware between WiFi and cellular networks and always automatically defaulting to the best option are within sight for the mobile industry. But standing between the wireless operators and this utopia are a number of significant roadblocks.
While WiFi has been many operators' data-dumping savior for a while, they are now keen to integrate it into their heterogeneous networks, tracking the traffic, keeping an eye on their offloaded customers and improving the experience as they take credit for it.
Yet the WiFi experience today is still far from perfect, so there's a lot of work to be done. Here are 10 of the biggest issues giving the operators and their customers trouble when it comes to carrier WiFi.
1. Achieving automatic authentication
Hotspot 2.0 is slated to be the fix for a lot of WiFi's biggest woes, including the need for seamless handoff and automatic authentication, and Heavy Reading analyst Gabriel Brown says the hype is not overstated.
The next-gen WiFi tech securely connects devices to the operator WiFi network or a partner network, making WiFi authentication similar to SIM-based wireless authentication in which the action is unbeknownst to the user. The Wi-Fi Alliance began certifying products under its Passpoint initiative earlier this year.
Authentication has to happen at the network level. For example, as Doug Lodder, VP of business development for Boingo Wireless Inc. , points out, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) has seamless handoff in Starbucks, but it's because Apple required it to write it into their firmware when the first iPhone was launched in 2007. (See AT&T Works on WiFi Integration.)
It's still the case that iOS is the only operating system that auto-connects with your coffee, and Apple just gave carrier WiFi a significant boost by including Hotspot 2.0 support with iOS 7. Operators will have to offer more Hotspot 2.0-certified devices and tackle network-based authentication to take advantage of seamless handoff.
2. Avoiding broken networks
The ability to seamlessly connect a user to WiFi is a beautiful thing, unless you're being dumped on to a broken, closed or otherwise nefarious network. This happens frequently today, and it's one issue that Hotspot 2.0 may not solve.
3. Ensuring intelligent network selection
That's what makes this next issue so important to master. Controlling how and when a device attaches to WiFi as opposed to cellular is a function of the mobile network core. It's far from automatic today, and when carriers start introducing combination 3G, 4G and WiFi small cells, it'll get even trickier.
The carriers are pushing hard for these combo cells, however, because as Ruckus Wireless Inc. VP of Corporate Marketing David Callisch explains, mounting rights are extremely difficult and challenging, causing carriers to want as much potential integration as possible.
Big vendors such as Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) and Nokia Solutions and Networks (NSN) are at the early stages of helping operators tackle this. Both introduced network-based, real-time steering software at CTIA to help operators balance traffic on their mobile networks and WiFi networks and connect to the best option at any given time. (See NSN Blends Cellular, WiFi and Ericsson Integrates WiFi with Cellular.)
4. Offloading to partners
Even steering technology such as that offered by Ericsson and NSN won't address third-party WiFi networks. Given the patchwork of partners that operators are signing up for WiFi, that will be a big deal. Boingo's Lodder said carriers will have to have faith in their roaming partners. Well, not just faith, but also service-level agreements, to ensure the quality is up to par at home and abroad.
So far, they have approached partnering to use other operators' WiFi networks cautiously -- understandably, too, because if the experience on that network is poor, they will still shoulder the blame. Wi-Fi Alliance's Figueroa says that 2013 has already seen terrific momentum for WiFi as operators around the globe are finally agreeing to roaming agreements.
"Partnerships grow the availability of WiFi for that operator and get the international roaming piece, which is so important," he says.
5. Applying policy to keep track of customers
Carrier WiFi challenges are creating much opportunity for policy management, packet core, OSS specialists and other Service Provider Information Technology (SPIT) vendors to help operators tackle the challenge of natively interfacing the mobile core with existing services like authentication, billing and policy.
Brown says the issue that remains with policy is: How you are distributing it to the device, and how is the device acting on it? The act of deciding in the network when to actually switch to WiFi is not easily done today. Operators don't have a mechanism to do so that's not over-the-top of their networks, he says.
6. Monetizing WiFi traffic
Now that free WiFi has become the norm, operators aren't likely to start charging for it (we hope). But they will certainly look to monetize it other ways. Some, like AT&T, have added free WiFi to their international roaming plans, but with a cap at 1GB of usage. Counting WiFi against the data cap could potentially become a standard practice, international or not.
Another option, that Devicescape Software Inc. is trialing now, is monetizing WiFi through advertisements. Devicescape's PopWi-Fi is a proximity marketing service, as CMO David Nowicki describes it. A consumer will walk into a store and automatically be connected to Wi-Fi and receive a message to "like" that store on Facebook, offer feedback or get a discount. Right now, Devicescape is trialing PopWiFi with thousands of small, local venues, but it plans to go after the bigger retail chains with the operators as its partners.
"We are competing against people like Facebook and Cisco who are doing proximity as well, so it makes more sense to combine forces with operators," Nowicki says.
7. Reconciling competing standards and overlapping ecosystems
The two prevailing standards bodies, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) and Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) , are living in different worlds, each with their own standards, processes and norms. The way a device connects to a network, for example, is different depending which is in play. Heavy Reading's Brown says operators and vendors need to bridge the 3GPP mobile and the IEEE WiFi ecosystems before they can move forward. (See Carrier WiFi: Always Best Connected.)
"Sometimes they're in conflict, but more often it's just the fact that they are different that increases complexity," Brown says, adding that it gets increasingly complex when you throw in the consumer electronics ecosystem, home networking ecosystem, and handset maker ecosystem, all of which have their own set of priorities.
8. Maintaining security
According to Torbjorn Ward, CEO of WiFi offload vendor Aptilo Networks AB , which works with operators like Brazil's Oi, the SIM or device-based authentication are the only methods that in practice will deliver an automatic login that is as secure as the one in the mobile network and natively available in the device from factory.
Devices that don't support SIM-based authentication like WiFi-only iPads need a different form of authentication, be it text, manual login, third-party tokens or otherwise.
"What is required in the WiFi access points is support for 802.1x which gives the additional benefit of the radio network being encrypted, thus SIM authentication provides a security level that is in line with the security in 3G/4G networks," Ward writes in an email to Light Reading, adding that operators will always need to balance between user experience and security.
Wi-Fi Alliance CEO Edgar Figueroa also notes that Passpoint will support more than 90 percent of the authentication mechanisms out there, including on non SIM-based devices like gaming devices, health monitoring gadgets or cameras. "The default is it makes everything secure," he says.
9. Guaranteeing quality of service (QoS)
Unlike with 3G offload, voice calls will be made over WiFi once voice-over-LTE (VoLTE) turns it into a data service. For that reason, and the fact that operators are claiming it as their own, the QoS should be the same on WiFi as it is on the cellular network -- and the handoff when on a voice call should be undetectable.
The number one concern Callisch hears time and time again from MNOs, MVNOs, MSOs and fixed-line operators is still reliability and performance. WiFi performance is still a huge issue for carriers as the unlicensed spectrum doesn't have a reputation for providing reliable connectivity and predictable performance, he says.
10. Coping with the sheer weight of traffic
Just because it is unlicensed spectrum, doesn't mean there isn't a ceiling on the traffic it can handle. Anyone who's attended a convention will tell you that WiFi can easily get overloaded. That's why Callisch and Figueroa agree that good coverage and scale are still chief WiFi concerns for mobile operators. While most operators invested in the tech to some degree, they are still working to build out enough access points to make it a viable network.
"The good news about WiFi is it has the ability to deal with much larger volume of data and dispense of it much more quickly than traditional cellular networks," Figueroa says. "In that sense, WiFi gets the traffic localized and then out of there quickly. For those reasons, a network that's well architected provides a good experience."
— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading