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Wi-Fi 'Wild West' Challenges Carriers

Michelle Donegan
LR Mobile News Analysis
Michelle Donegan
4/24/2012
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LONDON -- Strategic Opportunities in Service Provider Wi-Fi -- Mobile operators need to make better use of Wi-Fi, but one of their biggest challenges is identifying where they can add value to the user experience, according to Heavy Reading Senior Analyst Gabriel Brown.

For mobile operators, which are used to a much more controlled network environment, Wi-Fi looks like the "Wild West," explained Brown (who clearly has been watching too many Westerns lately.) The Wi-Fi sector is so broad that it's difficult to see which segment is best for them to target, he said.

From a mobile carrier's point of view, Wi-Fi is "unlicensed, often unsecure, and in short dangerous," he said, and they just "don't know where they stand."

While it may be fragmented and unruly, Wi-Fi has been essential to the growth in smartphone usage and has become a pillar of the mobile Internet. For example, about 60 percent to 70 percent of smartphone usage will be over Wi-Fi today, most of which is at home, according to Brown.

"Wi-Fi has helped operators massively and helped the smartphone revolution occur," said Brown. "Without it, there's no way the smartphone usage would have happened and no way operators would have built out 3G coverage to support it."

But even though mobile operators don't own most of the Wi-Fi access available to their customers, they can take advantage of what Brown sees as a vibrant ecosystem to improve the user experience.

Recent Heavy Reading research shows that the goal of mobile operators may not necessarily be to monetize Wi-Fi, but to make it easier for their customers to use it. A Heavy Reading survey found that 62 percent of respondents said seamless (i.e., "no touch") authentication was critical to a public access Wi-Fi service.

"It may not be direct monetization that is the driver," Brown said.

There are indications that operators are making moves to integrate Wi-Fi access better into their service offerings, and Brown has identified three phases of implementation over the next few years: "offload," which is user driven and unmanaged; "optimize," which involves automatic login, user identity and security; and eventually, "integrate," which will emerge in 2014 and will be policy-driven, offer session mobility, and will be transparent to the end user. That's how Brown sees Wi-Fi integration evolving.

The key point, noted Brown, is that Wi-Fi integration should be user- and services-led and it is not primarily about offload and cost reduction.

Ultimately, integration with the mobile network could one day make Wi-Fi just another trusted access into the mobile core. Operators are already considering how that network architecture might look, but there are a lot of challenges before that can happen, according to Brown.

But even if operators have a target architecture in mind to make Wi-Fi a trusted access, the biggest challenge for Wi-Fi will still remain -- and that is device fragmentation.

"There is so much variation in how manufacturers build the devices … it's very difficult for an operator to deal with. It's a major pain in the neck for operators," he said. "Whatever architecture you chose, you still have to build for the awkwardness of many different kinds of devices."

— Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Light Reading Mobile

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