What exactly is Carrier Grade WiFi?

Mobile operators want control, but beyond that, do we need a definition of what Carrier WiFi actually is? The Wireless Broadband Alliance thinks we do.

In the short time I spent at the WiFi Global Congress in London this week, one of the clear messages was that what we call Carrier Wifi is about a lot more than mobile data offload. Yes, there are some advantages in “moving” data off the cellular network in certain locations, at certain types of day, for certain types of traffic. But the more important point operators were keen to make, both on and off stage, is that giving customers access to “Carrier WiFi” is much more about having a strategic services platform than it is merely shifting data packets at less cost.

So… “strategic services platform” sounds like a piece of meaningless business speak, but what it means is using WiFi location and customer analytics to do some of the following:
deliver ads, deliver marketing offers, interact with customers, optimise a shopping mall layout, deliver managed WAN services, expose your [operator] brand.

O2’s WiFI boss Gavin Franks called this a B2B2C model, or BSquaredC, using the power of two brands (the retailer and the operator) around a customer, so that retail and business customers of an operator can use analytics and customer data to provide offers, or target their own products better.

O2 also sees WiFi as a good way to get its brand out in front of non-O2 customers, and to use the WiFi zone as a way to introduce services such as O2 Wallet and Priority Moments. With only 50% of users of O2 WiFi being O2 customers, you can see the logic.

Cisco’s Partho Mishra spoke of the analytics capabilities his company can bring to support a move from WiFi as cost reduction to WiFi as revenue generator. An example: Hyper-local services tied to an awareness of the customer context. Boingo Wireless is one WiFi service provider that is providing such analytics – powered by its acquisition last year of Cloud Nine – to its venue owners, according to its VP of Corporate Communications, Christian Gunning.

The question is, then, if Carrier WiFi is strategically important (ie. operators are going to rely on it for significant brand and revenue extension), and it looks like it’s going to be, then will it be important to work out how Carrier WiFi differs from normal WiFi – so that operators have some assurance around that strategy.?

One thing to think about in terms of what makes WiFi “Carrier WiF” is control – both of quality but also of the service experience. If Operator X is going to put its name to a WiFi zone, then it wants control over how a user authenticates to that WiFi zone. If a user is an existing customer with SIM in their device, it may be that the operator is happy for that user to be automatically authenticated and go straight through to the service. For non-customers, or for people with tablets or laptops with no SIM, there may be a splash landing page that is designed to promote a retail partner or similar. But Franks said that if a customer is using an app rather than a browser, O2 makes sure the session goes through without steering the customer to a landing page. In any event, authentication may not be “seamless” or automatic, but the terms are set by the carrier with its brand on that hotspot.

The second area of control that a carrier will seek to have is over quality – simply put speed to service and speed of service (throughput). Here, the parameters might about the capability and capacity of the access point itself, that access point’s configuration within a wider network (interference management), or backhaul provision, but also elements such as not accepting users when a site is loaded, or conducting some element of traffic control or management.

One thing that is of note is that all of the carrier/operator speakers at the event talked of their preference to have this control. O2 said that it decided to bring things in-house after a year or two of less than satisfactory experiences using the wholesale model. Virgin Media said one reason they are not going down the open/double SSID route, like a BTFon, is that it wants to have control of the environment around its WiFi zones. The Cloud, which is part of bSkyB and has that company as its biggest, albeit internal, wholesale customer, said that the importance of controlling the user experience that would support Sky’s mobile apps and Sky Go was one of the reasons it has invested in a high quality network, and has indeed spent the last couple of years upping the quality of the network.

All of these operators prefer to have that element of control. In the City of London, for example, where The Cloud has the franchise to supply a WiFi zone and can have 200 people requesting access to an access point at one time, one of its metrics is that it will not let a user authenticate onto an access point unless that user will receive a service level three times better than the existing cellular service. “One of the ways to ensure a good user experience is to stop people having a bad one in the first place,” the service provider’s Sam Sisiaho, head of Edge Technologies, told the conference. But this begs a question: does carrier grade WiFi actually mean 3x better than carrier grade cellular?

The Wireless Broadband Alliance is actually taking the business of delineating Carrier WiFi head on, by trying to produce a definition.

Ton Brand, Senior Director of Marketing and Industry Development, said that in general, with public WiFi still being mostly “best effort”, the WBA is going to define for operators what carrier grade WiFi is made up of. That could include elements such as how or whether to integrate policy control, location based services, or “most importantly” the QoS requirements that operators have. At the end of that the definitions would be passed on to the WiFi Alliance (essentially the vendors) and 3GPP (standards) to do a “gap analysis” on its definition.

“We need to get to grip with what we think carrier grade WiFi is,” Brand said. It won’t be quick, though, with Brand saying the definition will be at least six months in the making, and forming “a very large part of the work of the WBA in the second part of 2013”.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that not all carriers are alike, meaning that they will likely carry with them different expectations, and therefore definitions, of carrier WiFi. Boingo Wireless’ Christian Gunning told me that among Boingo’s customers there are spectrum-limited smaller carriers using it for cost mitigation and congestion management, and there are others (AT&T) looking for an international roaming partner that can mirror the service experience their outbound customers are used to in their domestic market.