Wifi roaming: The poor relation to GSM makes a comeback

Having worked in the telecoms industry for longer than I care to remember I have been privy to much of the hype that has surrounded technologies, services and platforms. My personal favourite was the marketing image constructed around WAP  – particularly the high tech individuals surfing the WAP-powered internet. This fantasy, seen in multiple campaigns, was particularly deceptive when the actual experience of using WAP was more like watching a glacier melting – and odds on the glacier would be gracing some overpriced restaurant being proffered as mineral water well before the WAP page was delivered. Wifi has experienced something similar in its evolution being touted as an answer to global telecoms connectivity and a realistic challenger to GSM and subsequently falling to deliver and falling out of favour in the cellular environment.

It would be an understatement to say that wifi has come back in favour with cellular players over the last few years being seen as a solution for data service delivery that is cost effective for the operator (taking data off the macro network) and customer when used while roaming (considerably cheaper than data roaming on a cellular network) while generally delivering a better data experience for the end user.

Of particular interest at the moment is the question of how wifi might be best used while roaming. This interest has evolved from the confluence of several industry-wide developments, fortuitous market dynamics and a number of challenges wifi has been identified as a solution for.

These points can be condensed into:

• The exponential increase in data services use, particularly asynchronous data resulting from social media use while roaming
• The increasing incidence of data billshock and the requirement to provide an adequate solution to tackle it.
• The ubiquity of wifi on smartphone devices and its increasing penetration into lower cost device segments.

Market factors
• The opening of roaming markets to competitive players from outside of the cellular industry most recently witnessed with the EU legislation toward local breakout (set to be implemented by 2014).
• The potential for wifi to provide a ready-made ‘enhanced’ data roaming experience.
• An industry-wide impetus to create a GSM-like experience with wifi while roaming. This has been crystallised in the announcement of PassPoint certification and Next Generation Hotspot 2.0 initiatives from the Wireless Broadband Alliance, WiFi Alliance and latterly the GSMA.

Technical enablers
• The degree of sophistication that has entered the market whereby wifi offload can be better controlled by network operators keen to leverage it in their roaming strategy.
• Development of technical solutions to provide interoperability and hotspot-to-hotspot hand-off.

The phenomenon of wifi offload has been around for some time as tech savvy business users and some consumers have sought to reduce their roaming bills by leveraging hotel networks and or commercial site access points (retail chains etc). Operators are now seeking to develop this activity to a mass market proposition and one that ideally they can control.

The view of wifi and offload strategies is evolving and softening but the central question remains as to what is the most effective strategy to enact in regards to wifi roaming based on its potential to cannibalise cellular roaming revenues.

Wifi offload is only one part of the wider pricing and service strategy operators are developing to provide better data services to their customers but it is growing in importance. There are many questions remaining as to where wifi will sit within the overall operator roaming strategy and toward answering these questions we at Informa Telecoms amd Media undertook an in-depth analysis into the wifi roaming phenomenon.

The objective of this process was to examine what has happened in the wifi space and highlight effective strategies operators have enacted to incorporate it into their strategies. Identification of possible pitfalls was also an output of this process.

A key endeavour of the research was providing hypothesis driven suggestions on actionable approaches and strategies for providing WiFi roaming within the structure of an international roaming strategy.

The conclusions from this analysis project can be accessed from here (http://ic.informatm.com/ic2/articles/show/125703).


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