Pass Master

Marcio Avillez, vice president of network operations at iPass

Marcio Avillez, vice president of network operations of iPass will be speaking at the LTE North America conference, which takes place in Dallas, Texas, on 8-9 November. We find out his perspective on how and why wifi is likely to remain a key component of the LTE world.

As operators begin to deploy their next generation networks, many are painting a rosy picture of how LTE will help solve the impending data crunch. But as Marcio Avillez, vice president of network operations at iPass explains, wifi networks must play a vital role in a carrier’s strategy if they are going to achieve their aims.

“We really see wifi as being complementary to the 3G services,” he says. “Different carriers come from different starting points and there’s a lot of different ways that wifi can help carriers even if they are looking at new technologies like LTE.”

iPass has strong position to comment on the needs of the mobile traveller. It has a history of providing access to the internet since the days of dial-up and the company continues to be successful. “Technology has changed, but people’s need to access the internet hasn’t. Over time, we’ve got into wifi and we have [revenues of] between $140-$150m forecast for this year.”

The iPass service is designed to simplify access to the internet, removing the need for users to recall usernames and passwords for multiple services. Users are just required to enter their iPass details into an application on their laptop or smartphones, and the software will connect them to one of the huge number of wifi services that iPass has deals with throughout the world.

But as 3G networks become ubiquitous and LTE networks become a reality, some might question what the incentive is for carriers to push wifi access. After all, don’t the carriers want people to use the networks they have invested in?

It all comes down to cost says Avillez. “For the carriers, the cost of a megabyte on wifi compared to an equivalent cost on LTE spectrum – the two things don’t compare.” As he points out, it makes sense for carriers to build out wifi networks to support their LTE networks even in home markets as the technology is comparatively cheap, “both from a radio standpoint on the devices, as well as the equivalent to the tower, which is the access point.”

Backing this up is the fact that in the UK, Telefonica, under its local brand O2, has launched a wifi network in the UK that is free to use for all, not just its own customers. Virgin Media meanwhile has announced plans to do the same, although its own subscribers will gain access to faster connection speeds.

“On the domestic front, if you’re a carrier and you’re trying to manage your capital envelope continued investment in LTE could very well be combined with a strategy on the capital side deploying wifi in places where it is a good complement to the LTE service.”

Avillez points out that wifi could offer a good alternative where LTE might struggle to offer good indoor coverage, something likely to affect those carriers rolling out at high frequencies.

Outside of local network the real need for wifi connectivity from a carrier point of view is to bolster their roaming offerings, particularly for those using LTE at home. As Avillez observes, “LTE roaming is not a reality, and it will take some time to get that fallback stuff worked out. If you have an LTE device you can obviously have someone roam on 3G, but wifi will still be an option for someone who isn’t willing to pay the going rates for data roaming.”

In fact, a recent report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) stated that only 17 per cent of North American mobile owners ever use roaming, while one third of European users have done so. Neither figure is a high percentage. As Avillez puts it, “if there’s one thing the industry has done well, it is to teach everyone to turn off data roaming. Nobody turns it on if they are paying for it themselves. The only ones are those who don’t see the bill.”

iPass then is working with carriers to enable them to leverage wifi and offer something to those users who would otherwise be turned off roaming completely. “We’re really focused on going to carriers and enabling them to offer something that’s carrier branded and doesn’t look like iPass at all – essentially, a white label solution. We’ve got 140-plus providers already connected on the wifi side to our hub and one connection into us will get you access into all of those. And we have commercial agreements that enable us to resell access to those networks – so kind of a sponsored roaming scenario.”

For the carrier, there’s a clear advantage of offering a service where they can get something rather than nothing. “We see this as a way [for carriers] to offer something to those users, while still protecting their data roaming business by differentiating those two things.

Looking to the next 12 months, Avillez says that the challenge will be to help enable mobile carriers to seamlessly integrate wifi into their offerings and bring management of those users on the network into their existing infrastructure “You [need to] make wifi look like another data roaming service,” he says.

The aims are two-fold. “On the consumer side it’s making sure we deliver a really good user experience, based on how the carrier wants to go to market and on the back-end integration side being able to deliver the information from this wifi world back into the carrier, in a way that they can digest and process, in order to manage and build the service effectively and efficiently.”

This isn’t an entirely straightforward task however. “The wifi world wasn’t designed for the mobile carriers. So there is a need for technology that bridges the functionality aspirations of the mobile carriers with the reality of what the deployed wifi portal looks like.”

This integration however, is only a matter of time he says. “Once they [carriers] start thinking about it, they start seeing the benefit and they start asking the questions such as: ‘how do we incorporate this into the portfolio that we have?’ And that’s what we’re spending quite a bit of time with:to help carriers incorporate this into their existing packages and help them be successful in the market place.”

The LTE North America 2011 conference takes place at the Fairmont Dallas Hotel on the 8-9 November 2011 in Dallas, Texas.

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