Wi-Fi, the messiah of operators’ brimming networks

  • Wi-Fi is a workable solution to help mobile operators offload data burden
  • Challenges with standards and authentication still stand in the way

MOBILE operators in the region have no choice but to embrace enterprise-grade Wi-Fi technology to keep up with demand of burgeoning cellular traffic but several challenges act as impediments to the rolling out of a full-fledged, seamless cellular-cum-Wi-Fi network, notes an industry body. 

Shrikant Shenwal, CEO of Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), said that two years back, Wi-Fi had a slightly different reaction from mobile carriers. Today however, most, if not all operators, believe that the short-range, unlicensed wireless technology is the only way to meet consumers’ insatiable data demands, he added.

“[Today], every carrier looks at Wi-Fi as part of the solution for their network, he told a CommunicAsia 2012 conference session here in Singapore today (June 19). “There are a lot of network requirements for this, and it makes sense to integrate it [Wi-Fi into their cell networks].
CommunicAsia is the region’s largest conference and exhibition of communication products and services, and is being held at the Marina Bay Sands Convention Center in Singapore this week (June 19-21).
Established in 2003, the WBA is an industry body comprising fixed and wireless operators, and was created to support and further the vision of ubiquitous and seamless wireless broadband services in the region.
Shenwal said based on a recently concluded survey commissioned by WBA, global mobile data traffic is expected to reach 16.84 million terabytes by 2014. The survey also noted that operators planned to manage this growth through the use of various pricing strategies followed closely by the use of Wi-Fi-based offload solutions.
The survey, entitled, “Global Developments in Public Wi-Fi” and conducted by analysis firm The Informa Group in September 2011, drew 259 responses from the industry, with 30% of the responses coming from Western Europe; 22.2% from Asia Pacific; and 18.3% from North America.
Shenwal said that, surprisingly, most operators surveyed did not say revenue generation was their main reason for using Wi-Fi hotspots to complement their networks.
Instead, he noted that the top three sources of value operators were deriving from Wi-Fi were to enhance user experience; to offload data; and to provide a value-added services platform to customers.
Operators are not looking to increase their revenue [with Wi-Fi offload solutions] but at enhancing user experience by making it easy to access and convenient for them to use Wi-Fi, Shenwal said.
“In the end, it’s about making it complementary to the service they provide as an operator, thereby enhancing their value [in the eyes of the customer].”
Dave Williams, chief technology officer of mobile broadband startup Stoke, concurred, noting that today’s typical average mobile users aren’t interested in whether they get their mobile data connection via Wi-Fi or 3G or LTE (Long Term Evolution or 4G).
Williams, who spoke at the same conference session, noted that consumers are happy as long as the connection is secure and that no one can access their information
“So the thought process of the operators have changed,” he said. “Operators are looking to bundle together a Wi-Fi with a 3G/4G radio access in a seamless way.”
Still some way

Despite the obvious strengths that Wi-Fi offload technology brings to mobile operators, WBA’s Shenwal conceded that there are challenges that could stymie its use as an industry-wide solution.
Shenwal pointed out that alongside work on the technical evolution and performance of Wi-Fi, work on standards and a number of related industry initiatives on other aspects such as network discovery, identification, connection, authentication and security are all critical for the successful and seamless integration of Wi-Fi with cellular networks.
He added that in the WBA’s survey of operators worldwide, the top three barriers to wider adoption and usage of Wi-Fi among end users were authentication, access costs, and issues to do with network discovery.
Shenwal said these key barriers need to be addressed, and the WBA is trying to do this through its Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) initiative.
The initiative is designed to improve and simplify time-consuming and often confusing processes such as hotspot selection, manual user-authentication and log-in, and roaming-partner-network selection. The effort is being driven in the standards domain by the IEEE and industry bodies such as the WBA and the Wi-Fi Alliance, he added.
“Major industry forums are working together to take advantage of the opportunities offered by Wi-Fi today,” he said.
Edwin Yapp of Digital News Asia reports from CommunicAsia 2012 in Singapore. More stories to come.

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