Offload Opportunity Forces New Wi-Fi Mindset

If you told mobile carriers a few years ago that in a few years, one of their biggest challenges would be managing the explosion of traffic on their data networks, they would not have believed you, or they might have said it sounds like a nice problem to have. Furthermore, if you told them that offloading some of their traffic and users to Wi-Fi would be the increasingly accepted way of dealing with that problem, they would have laughed you out of the room.

Yet mobile data traffic congestion is already a reality in 2012, and it is driving many carriers to explore the option of actively employing an unlicensed spectrum technology they have been dissing for years. A sharp reversal in mindset regarding Wi-Fi has played out in many carrier organizations over the last year or so, and in other companies it’s just starting to play out.

That shift in mindset is only the beginning, however. While I was doing research in recent months for the newest Heavy Reading Mobile Networks Insider, "Network Operators Start to Figure Out Wi-Fi Offload," I found a market and ecosystem that is in a state of flux:

  • Carriers can support Wi-Fi offload in various ways, from simply using connection manager software, to beginning to re-architect their networks with Wi-Fi offload points in mind.

  • They can use hardware and software that supports the longstanding WISPr standard, or focus on solutions adhering to 3GPP standards, or can wait a little longer for gear that has been certified through the Wi-Fi Alliance’s Hotspot 2.0 Passpoint program.

  • They can limit users to roaming on Wi-Fi hot spots they own, or they can let them roam third-party hot spots.

  • There is an increasingly long list of vendors that carriers can work with, from connection manager specialists and offload application developers to the mobile infrastructure vendor partners they know and love, to companies that manage offload from a service management perspective.

Decisions, decisions, decisions. And on top of all these present decisions, there will be long-term future decisions, such as whether to include Wi-Fi usage in mobile data caps, and whether to have customers download offload apps or have the process be completely network-based.

It is still very early in the evolution of Wi-Fi offload, and carriers need to be willing to experiment to find the right mix of solutions. They must accept the possibility that they might need to change direction on Wi-Fi offload, and make adjustments on how they approach it over the next few years. What looks right for now may not look right, or may not be enough, in the future.

What they can’t do is wait for all these issues to sort themselves out into a straightforward set of obvious answers, because they need answers now on how to deal with network congestion issues and what to do about customer desire to access Wi-Fi. The tricky evolution ahead may require some folks in carrier organizations to recognize a wrong choice early on before they recognize the right one later. Admitting you’re wrong isn’t such a bad thing if you eventually get it right. Admitting they were wrong years ago about Wi-Fi not having a place in their strategies is a solid first step for carriers to take.

— Dan O'Shea, Contributing Analyst, Heavy Reading Mobile Networks Insider

Network Operators Start to Figure Out Wi-Fi Offload, an 18-page report, is available as part of an annual subscription (12 monthly issues) to Heavy Reading Mobile Networks Insider, priced at $1,595. This report is available for $900. To subscribe, please visit: www.heavyreading.com/mobile-networks.

joanengebretson 12/5/2012 | 5:28:37 PM
re: Offload Opportunity Forces New Wi-Fi Mindset

Hello Dan

Sounds like you did some interesting research. What's your take on roaming? Do you think carriers will want to share WiFi infrastructure?

Based on what has happened with regard to mobile data, I'm thinking they may be reluctant to do that. And if they do, I suspect they'll want some sort of compensation.

Did you happen to look at what would be required for carriers to bill one another for WiFi offload? I think some of the standards you referenced may aim to address that at some point but maybe not yet?




Telco 12/5/2012 | 5:28:16 PM
re: Offload Opportunity Forces New Wi-Fi Mindset

With the FEMTO integration to Wireline Subscriber backhaul under development in IMS support, the telco/sister business relationships support sharing or credits for each other to return off-loading back to internal products.  The Wi-fi function of Voice is dwindling compared to entertainment and video streaming from tablets so CATV can continue to work on media-streaming to devices.  The point is in-home devices for next 2 years will land on CATV Wi-Fi and/or Telco Wi-Fi in-home or office.  For the Wireline Telcos they kind of got their bases covered.  Late next year 3GPP/FEMTO/IMS removes cellular off-loading onto CATV (and other network Wi-Fi for now).  The only change would be four years from now when SpectrumCo could move their reseller Cellular off-loading subscribers to the in-home CATV Wi-Fi rather than leave on the operators FEMTO (Pico/Micro) cells that use the wireline telco backhaul.

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