Five million reasons why Wi-Fi Assist might not be Apple’s finest idea

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this post, Todd Mersch from Wi-Fi QoE specialist XCellAir reflects on Apple’s recent legal difficulties with its Wi-Fi Assist service.

Disclaimer: I consider myself to be an Apple fan. Well, I certainly prefer iOS over Android, I have an iPhone, an iPad and an Apple TV. I don’t stand in queues every time a new device is launched and I don’t yet have an Apple Watch – they do look nice though, don’t they?

I can’t help feel a little sympathetic therefore over Apple’s latest legal issues. Two US users feel aggrieved that the company failed to warn them that Wi-Fi Assist, available on iOS 9, ate into their data plans when they thought they were on a Wi-Fi network. Both are pursuing a US$5 million claim against Apple.

I feel sympathetic because I thought the feature was well conceived and a good idea when it launched. Have any of you ever noticed a huge decrease in performance in your smartphone and then realized it’s hanging onto a Wi-Fi connection by a thread? Despite the fact there is perfect cellular coverage available? Wi-Fi Assist was intended to fix this problem automatically.

Apple is in hot water because it allegedly failed to properly communicate the ramifications of taking the choice of which network to access and join from the user – and therefore choosing to incur cost (through mobile data) when the user would prefer not to (and stay on Wi-Fi). Like other industry commentators, I’m skeptical that Wi-Fi Assist really is to blame for big increases in mobile data usage. It’s always easy to blame the big multinational corporations – and there are no bigger than Apple.

I rest easy however that Mr. Cook and Co. most likely has a very detailed, well argued, logical and vastly expensive defense suitably prepared. Having posted a record quarterly profit of US$10 billion last quarter, I feel confident they have the resources to go the distance on this one.

Whether or not Apple is proved to be liable, from personal experience Wi-Fi Assist didn’t work as well as it could. I frequently get frustrated at how long my iPhone seems determined to hang on to a terrible Wi-Fi connection. If the overall intention really is to ensure that users benefit from the best available connection, there is little doubt that Wi-Fi Assist could do better.

But then I’m also in no doubt that Apple could be helped by the carrier community too. I mean, Wi-Fi Assist would be completely redundant if operators worked harder to optimize QoE from Wi-Fi networks. The simple ability to properly manage multiple Wi-Fi channels to reduce interference could make all the difference to users receiving a positive, rather than negative Wi-Fi experience.

To make this a reality, operators must tackle the lack of standards for Wi-Fi spectrum usage and address the lack of attention to detail over existing radio resource management. Unfortunately, as things stand, the clash between devices operating in unlicensed spectrum is massively damaging when it comes to spectrum efficiency. A recent study by XCellAir and Real Wireless revealed that on average, two whole channels worth of Wi-Fi bandwidth is completely unused at any given time, despite congestion and interference being experienced in the occupied channels.

Cellular networks are painstakingly managed, Wi-Fi networks are not. If operators focused more attention on ensuring Wi-Fi networks provided reliable performance in the same way as cellular networks, it is highly unlikely that Apple would be in this position – because Wi-Fi Assist would be deemed mostly unnecessary. This is why I’m sympathetic towards Apple for trying to solve a problem that is not of its making.

Wi-Fi Assist may not be great, but I’m not sure it’s $5 million bad either.


Todd_Mersch_IMG_0124At XCellAir, Todd is responsible for worldwide sales, product management and marketing. Prior to founding XCellAir, he spent nine years leading the Trillium software business at both Continuous Computing and Radisys. Todd focused Trillium on providing software and services for both 3G and LTE small cells, including enabling the world’s first LTE small cell deployments. He has been a thought leader and evangelist of small cells for more than seven years. He holds both a BS in Systems Engineering from the University of Virginia and a MS in Systems Architecture from the University of Southern California.


  1. Avatar sridhar.neelakanta 03/11/2015 @ 2:58 pm

    But then it is just because the management costs are very less that the WiFi networks are cheaper, are they not? If one starts optimizing the WiFi networks just the way the 3G or LTE networks are being done with then they (WiFi) will also become expensive…no? So much of money is spent on equipment, site locations, frequency planning, drive testing, statistical analysis of performance etc in a cellular network that the data usage cost is high. If one does the same in WiFi, they will also become costly. One example that comes to mind is the promise of cost efficiency with which WiMax was advertised 6-7 years back. But could not succeed and LTE has come to be. Perhaps I am wrong…..in that case kindly correct me Todd. Thanks.

  2. Avatar Sarah 05/11/2015 @ 4:51 am

    Unfortunately, we (my husband and I) are constantly surrounded by terrible wifi. My university always has a terrible connection and my husband’s work has bad connections – we are almost always struggling with one bar. However, we don’t have unlimited data plans and therefore live with the bad connection and slow speeds. With the update, my husband’s phone ate up 9.87 gb in about a week because, apparently, wifi assist didn’t think the wifi was good enough. We both had to turn off our data entirely so as not to go over our 10gb plan. In this case, wifi assist failed miserably. But I’m glad we caught it before we had to pay for overages!

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