By Adlane Fellah, Founder and CEO, Maravedis-Rethink and WiFi 360
The early part of 2014 may well be seen, in retrospect, as a major turning point for carrier-grade Wi-Fi, and all the emerging business model options which rely on it. This is because several important trends converged in this year.
Wi-Fi started to be fully integrated with other networks such as cellular via advances like Passpoint 2.0 and Next Generation Hotspot. It started to expand into new sectors, such as the Internet of Things, where new business cases could be found. Its performance was boosted by the adoption of new standards like 802.11ac. Its coverage was expanded further through the roll-out of ‘homespots’.
And service providers of many kinds started to harness Wi-Fi in new ways. From simple internet access services, or mobile data offload, the models have evolved rapidly, and the biggest change is the proliferation of companies using Wi-Fi in ways that will transform their economics and services.
However, the industry has still only really scratched the surface of the huge opportunity for wireless connected devices.
MSO strategy has particularly been driven by the rise of the ‘Community Wi-Fi hotspot’, a wireless home gateway with two SSIDs, one of them private, the other open for use for public access.
The five leading US cable operators are deploying aggressively, with Community Wi-Fi hotspots an increasingly significant part of their footprints, and they also support mutual roaming via their Cable Wi-Fi initiative. Comcast recently reported 3.6m hotspots and Cablevision said it hit its goal of reaching one million Wi-Fi public access points by year end five months early. Cablevision says its Optimum Wi-Fi service now hosts over 250m sessions a month, averaging 4Gbytes of data a month. Comcast will more than double its numbers to eight million by year end, with seven million being Community Wi-Fi hotspots.
Some operators speak of instances where 50% of cellular traffic disappears overnight when seamless authentication is added to an existing stable Wi-Fi installation, such as at an airport. A few MNOs have said that, once they have LTE widely deployed, there is less need for Wi-Fi, but a larger number observe that, when 4G is offered, overall data usage leaps dramatically, increasing the need to offload in order to maintain QoS.
Wi-Fi first is even being adopted for consumer wireless services , especially in the US, where several MVNOS, such as Scratch Wireless, plus T-Mobile (and reportedly Sprint soon) offer deals where Wi-Fi is the default connection and the user only goes onto cellular networks when good quality Wi-Fi is unavailable.
However, there are still challenges, and while some of the concerns of previous years, such as device availability and security, have been tackled aggressively, new issues are preoccupying providers, such as clarifying the business model, as well as improving QoS and reliability, and keeping up with the roadmap.
Nonetheless, the carrier landscape has been transformed by some key developments:
- Increasing investment in carrier-grade Wi-Fi networks, capable of supporting QoS and service variety similar to those of other operator systems.
- Shift towards mobile, cable and telco operation of Wi-Fi hotspots
- Full integration of Wi-Fi into their mainstream networks and services
- Rising adoption of homespots, a Wi-Fi technology which relies on control of broadband lines in the home, to increase coverage at low cost
These have brought new factors into the business mix, both the increased cost of supporting or upgrading to carrier-grade Wi-Fi and to converged networks; and the potential new revenue-generating services. These include voice services, IoT offerings and roaming revenues.
All these trends will drive an increase in the installed base of public Wi-Fi hotspots accessible to carriers to reach over 8m, a figure which will rise to 12.23m in 2018 (excluding homespots).