Behind the scenes of the massive expansion of public Wi-Fi around the world in recent years, there has been another development going on. The Wi-Fi platform has been evolving rapidly and is now emerging as a fully carrier-grade network, poised to revolutionize the services and business models which Wi-Fi can support.
Recent years have mainly been a story of expansion, making broadband access available to millions of users in every corner of the world.This has seen a significant build-out of Wi-Fi hotspots – and more recently, community hotspots (residential gateways with a second SSID left open for public access) – by many kinds of venues and operators.
However, the service models for these networks have been largely limited to best-effort web access, while monetization has relied on a few well-established options like pay-as-you-go access fees, advertising or indirect benefits like churn reduction.
The move to fully carrier-grade Wi-Fi networks will spark an explosion in the range of services which consumers can use on hotspots, and in the monetization options for operators. New capabilities include faster data rates (802.11ac hotspots), seamless authentication and hand-off to cellular (NGH and Passpoint), wider roaming, carrier-grade network and subscriber management, and improved QoS and security. All these add up to a network which can support many services which were difficult or impossible with previous public Wi-Fi generations. The most important fall into four categories, all of which are enabled by improved levels of performance and reliability:
- Services which require high levels of security and QoS, such as enterprise communications (especially voice) and public sector applications like safety
- Services which rely on integration with other networks, such as cellular or cable – part of a broader trend towards converged quad play offerings
- Services which focus on ultra-reliable machine-to-machine communications rather than human use, such as smart city and smart healthcare applications
- Services such as ‘TV everywhere’, which are driven by high quality video, which is dependent on good bandwidth and QoS
The ability to implement services in these emerging categories will not only create new revenue streams for Wi-Fi networks, they will create a new class of service providers. As the types of services expands, there will be a major proliferation of companies supporting consumer, enterprise or IoT (internet of things) services on Wi-Fi. Many of these will not build their own hotspots, but will harness improved roaming and authentication schemes to rely on third party networks.
Venues, retailers, smart city providers, over-the-top content providers, multimedia applications developers and many others will offer their services and brands to the growing base of users by riding on carrier-grade Wi-Fi.
Many of these new service providers, as well as new revenue streams for conventional operators, will rely on Wi-Fi integrating with other technologies. In the smart home, it will work alongside WPAN (wireless personal area network) technologies like Bluetooth LE and ZigBee; for consumer services, there will be increasing integration – at access and management levels – with cellular. These are complementary technologies, but there will also be new networks appearing in licence-exempt bands – LTE-Unlicensed, for instance, or specialized low power wide area (LPWA) technologies for smart cities.
Cooperation with these other technologies will drive yet more service models, and will point towards a ‘5G’ era where it is likely that many networks will work together in a highly integrated manner. Wi-Fi is well positioned for this heterogeneous world. It has flourished by having a broad ecosystem at equipment and device levels, and a high degree of global harmonization, both of which make it well-suited to be the basis of new devices and services. It is inherently a ‘good neighbor’ standard, which can coexist with other technologies, and its capabilities are being enhanced by carrier-grade functionality and expanded spectrum options.
All those developments will underpin the next phase of public Wi-Fi history, characterized by a huge expansion of services and revenue streams, and of the variety of service providers. 2015 will be a landmark year, with key technical and market developments which will enable new business models for existing and new service providers. As well as driving new hotspot build-outs and service launches in the 1-3 year timeframe, it will also lay the foundations for Wi-Fi’s prominent role in the wireless world of 2020, which will see an even bigger explosion of consumer, enterprise and IoT services and providers.
Stay tuned for the upcoming 2017 State of the Industry Report from the Broadband Wireless Alliance. with great updates on the role of Wi-Fi and unlicensed in 5G, connected cities, and coexistence of Net Gen Wireless.