opinion


Wi-Fi: an extension or alternative to cellular networks?

wifi devices cloud small cell

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Martin Morgan, VP of Marketing at Openet, looks at how service providers are using Wi-Fi to improve network coverage for customers.

Wi-Fi is already the dominate source of internet for many. In December 2015, Ofcom reported the average data usage per public UK Wi-Fi hotspot was 73GB, up from 54GB the previous year. In comparison, 0.87GB was the average amount of data used, per device, over cellular, up from 0.53GB during the same period.

People generally love public Wi-Fi. Even at the recent Mobile World Congress, centre of all things cellular, many delegates had switched off data roaming and were taking full advantage of the free Wi-Fi hotspots around Barcelona. However, with the increasing use of video many public Wi-Fi services are being stretched towards breaking point. In some counties, it’s common to see notices requesting that customers refrain from using video when using the free Wi-Fi service on transport.

In the face of this, Wi-Fi is growing up – and fast. Thanks to relatively low connectivity costs, service providers be it cellular, fixed line or cable, are using Wi-Fi to act as an extension or alternative to cellular. Yet to ensure customer satisfaction, Wi-Fi offer needs to deliver a quality of experience (QoE) that’s either as good as or better than promised by 4G.

Wi-Fi as an alternative to cellular

In order to keep wholesale costs down, some MVNOs are rolling out Wi-Fi first services – using Wi-Fi as an alternative to cellular networks like 3G or 4G.

The most high profile example of this is Google’s Project Fi. This uses a network of free Wi-Fi access points to offer customers lower costs plans – starting at $10 for each 1GB of data used – as it only switches traffic to network data when the Wi-Fi signal is not strong enough. According to Google, Project Fi automatically connects customers to “free, open Wi-Fi networks that do not require any action to get connected such as, enter a password or check-in.”

Fixed line and cable companies are also beginning to roll out community Wi-Fi – this involves broadband customers providing access to their Wi-Fi, in exchange for access to other customer’s Wi-Fi around the world. Through utilising the Wi-Fi access points of their existing customers around the world, broadband providers are able to create a ready-made network that can be used to support their own MVNOs. Using a similar crowdsourcing approach, Fon has managed to develop a global network of over 18.5million Wi-Fi hotspots.

However, Wi-Fi first providers are increasingly using superlatives to differentiate one ‘high speed’ Wi-Fi service over another – leading customers to look around for the best free, high speed Wi-Fi options. This is all well and good but if a service is slow due to congestion, customers will move on.

Offering Wi-Fi and hoping that it will cope with the usage peaks is no longer good enough. It all comes back to ensuring the QoE remains as good as, or better than, 4G.

Wi-Fi as an extension of cellular

Mobile operators are taking a slightly different approach, bundling Wi-Fi access into data plans to create a seamless connection. Diverting traffic from cellular to Wi-Fi used to just be about low costs, but now it’s playing a larger role in luring and retaining customers. For mobile operators the challenge is to position Wi-Fi as an extended service that people are willing to pay for. With the race on to provide quad play packages, getting this Wi-Fi element right will become an increasingly important.

The economics of using Wi-Fi as extension to cellular make sense. Telecoms consultants, Senza Fili, states that the total cost of ownership per bit of Wi-Fi is only 10% of 3G and 43% of 4G. If mobile operators can offload traffic from cellular to Wi-Fi, and at the same time deliver the quality of experience, then there are significant savings to be made.

Already we’re seeing operators build Wi-Fi in mobile bundles. One such example where this is being done is in Singapore where Singtel already offers its Wi-Fi service bundled in with its mobile data plans. This plan promises ease of use, automatically switching customers between 3G/4G and premium Singtel Wi-Fi hot spots. From a user’s perspective because switching is automatic, and if the quality is as good as 4G, then the customer shouldn’t care if they’re on 3G / 4G or high speed Wi-Fi. Similarly in the US, Sprint recently partnered with Wi-Fi provider Boingo to offload traffic to airport Wi-Fi hotspots. A year later, it has been reported that around 22 million Sprint customers are now using Boingo’s Wi-Fi network when in major airports across the US. This number is expected to eventually rise to 40 million within the next year or so. In terms of data used, Boingo reported that that number has grown to 300 MB per session in 2016, up from 35 MB previous to the deal.

These examples show how the lines between Wi-Fi and cellular are being blurred for many customers, and strongly suggests a move towards Wi-Fi supplementing cellular networks. However, intelligently routing traffic onto Wi-Fi, be as an alternative or an extension to cellular networks, puts QoE centre stage. Unless the QoE delivered is as good as, or better than 4G then customers won’t adopt it. Be it Google’s Project Fi or the Boingo and Sprint partnership the critical factor is improved quality.

Delivering the best network experience

Adding a layer of intelligent decision making ensures that customers are always being connected to the most appropriate access network – be it Wi-Fi or cellular. These decisions can be based on device type, location, subscription type, traffic type, available access networks and a host of other information. The decision to move traffic from one network to another is not just about signal strength – that is just one of the criteria. The ability to deliver zero touch, seamless connection delivers the best customer experience.

With the increasing availability of carrier, community and public Wi-Fi, all service providers have an opportunity to use a combination of Wi-Fi and cellular to ensure always best connected approach for customers. This can make up for holes in cellular coverage, such as in-building coverage and in remote locations, as well as provide an effective off-load solution for capacity management.

Customers don’t really care about networks. They just expect to be able to use their devices without any glitches, regardless of where they are or what they are doing. If service providers can deliver this with Wi-Fi, be it as an alternative or extension to cellular, then there is a huge opportunity to lower network operating costs whilst improving customer satisfaction.

 

openet-martin-morgan-BWWith 25 years’ experience in mobile communications software, Martin has worked in mobile billing software since the early days of the industry. In that time he’s spoken at over 50 telecoms conferences worldwide, written over 80 white papers and has had over 100 articles published in the telecoms trade press. He’s served on trade association and BSS company boards. At Openet, Martin is responsible for marketing thought leadership and market interaction.


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