Wi-Fi: Taking the Strain for Cellular
Blazin' Wi-Fi Towerstream Corp., which traditionally offers a WiMax-based last-mile service to business customers, wants to build up its carrier business, leasing Passpoint-ready Wi-Fi nodes to operators. CEO Jeff Thompson won't name the company's carrier customers thus far for Wi-Fi, but the company has two contracts with "national" carriers and a trial under way with a third.
For some time now, Towerstream executives have been of the belief that Wi-Fi and 3G and cellular would be deployed side-by-side. This was confirmed when they heard operator presentations at the WBA Wi-Fi Global Congress in November. "It's interesting now to see Wi-Fi in five-year business models when they're doing network planning," Thompson says.
Certainly for the major carriers, entire network architectures are going through a fundamental shift. Engineers at Sprint, for example, are getting surgical about small cells, using them to pump up data capacity to preserve scarce spectrum.
Wi-Fi has a crucial role to play in all of this change, according to Towerstream. "We're at the point now where Wi-Fi is not going away," Thompson says. The majority of a consumer's smartphone data usage is done via Wi-Fi and it's the one common technology on handsets that transcends HSPA+, LTE and other flavors of wireless, he notes.
In Thompson's eyes, Wi-Fi offload is not that different from what carriers have been doing for years. For a long time, they wanted to own the towers and rooftops but discovered it was more economical to let the tower companies do that. Granted, operators still need to do some of their own site acquisitions, but more often, they're looking at getting these types of services from someone else.
"The cheapest way to grow your revenue is to lower churn," Thompson notes, adding that the cheapest way to acquire spectrum is to use offload.
Alternative for roaming In addition to making the most of licensed spectrum, Wi-Fi is one of the more economical ways to deliver international roaming, especially as the industry moves to LTE and needs to figure out how to make all those disparate frequencies talk to one another.
Boingo Wireless Inc., which manages more than 600,000 hot spots worldwide, has an agreement to supply global roaming for an unnamed U.S.-based Tier 1 carrier. Boingo expects to see the results of that deal reflected in its bottom line toward the end of 2013 and into 2014. It's still in the early stages, but President and CEO David Hagan is hopeful that, along with Boingo's agreement with the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA), it will lead to more carrier deals in the future.
The purpose of the CCA agreement is two-fold, said Christian Gunning, vice president of corporate communications at Boingo. First, the carriers in CCA tend to be more spectrum constrained and therefore they can use the offload capabilities of the Wi-Fi network. Second, because their footprints are smaller than the Big 4 U.S. carriers, they're spending a lot on roaming. Offloading onto Wi-Fi gives them an economical alternative.
Boingo's relationship with operators goes beyond Wi-Fi, however, and that's another reason company executives think they have a leg up. Boingo considers itself the second-largest distributed antenna systems (DAS) operator in the U.S., second only to Crown Castle International Corp.. Hagan has stated that he believes carrier Wi-Fi will be much more like the DAS business, where traffic moves back and forth without the consumer's intervention.
Different strokes In the same general category as Boingo is another company, iPass. But where Boingo's offerings include a service direct to consumers, iPass has been focused on the enterprise and doesn't target consumers, explains Steve Livingston, iPass's senior vice president of carrier development. It also doesn't position its carrier services as something to use for Wi-Fi offload. Instead, the company sells a solution for operators to offer international roaming to their customers under a white-label arrangement.
The selling point of iPass for businesses is its ability to work out all the variations between networks, like authentication, and present a connection as a single seamless entity to its customers.
iPass expects to finish this year with between 15 and 20 roaming deals. None of them so far involves a U.S. carrier but according to the company it is early days yet.
"These are the early adopters around the world who are going to take a service to the market and we'll see how disruptive they are," Livingston said. "We're in the first and second inning of a whole new market."
— Monica Alleven , special to Light Reading