Curated Wi-Fi can help providers make the leap to carrier-grade

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Several recent market studies have indicated that investment in carrier-grade Wi-Fi will increase sharply from 2015. This reflects a fundamental shift in the role of public Wi-Fi in consumers’ lives and service providers’ businesses, but it will also involve significant expense. Many operators will be looking for affordable ways to upgrade to carrier-class Wi-Fi services, which could create a strong opportunity for curated Wi-Fi.

The recent annual industry report from the Wireless Broadband Alliance (conducted by Maravedis-Rethink) found that, for 70% of respondents, improved customer experience was a compelling reason to move to carrier-grade Wi-Fi.

However, that requires significant investment. There are no official definitions of what constitutes ‘carrier-grade Wi-Fi’, but as Sami Susiaho, head of BSkyB’s The Cloud Wi-Fi unit, put it recently: “Nobody has defined carrier-grade, but we all know what it is.” He names Hotspot 2.0/Passpoint support, ANDSF and granular access control as critical, but all of these require expensive equipment upgrades and, to maximize the returns, enhanced tools.

So is there a quicker, cheaper way for operators to be able to promote ‘carrier-grade’?

Curated Wi-Fi is one answer to this question. This approach offers providers a way to use third party hotspots, rather than invest in their own, while retaining a measure of quality control. That control will become far more important once providers start to promise their users ‘carrier-class’ Wi-Fi, perhaps even using that as a reason to move them to a premium tariff.

Nearly all operators – mobile, fixed or pure-play – extend Wi-Fi availability for their customers via roaming, data offload and aggregator deals (some do not build any hotspots themselves). These help reduce the cost of providing good coverage, but most of those options give them limited visibility over the quality of the hotspots they are, in virtual terms, adding to their networks. A mobile customer, for instance, may find themselves ‘offloaded’ onto a Wi-Fi hotspot by the MNO’s traffic management policies, but if they have a poor experience on that hotspot, they will blame the mobile provider.

Curated Wi-Fi providers create large virtual networks of third party hotspots, but promise to carry out a degree of quality control (a degree which is likely to become more stringent with the rising expectations of users and operators). Examples include Devicescape, whose Curated Virtual Network of free hotspots round the world is harnessed by a wide range of operators, particularly in its US stronghold (T-Mobile, C Spire, AT&T’s Leap division and others); and WeFi, whose flagship customer is Time Warner Cable, part of the massive US-wide CableWi-Fi system.

Manage from the Device

Devicescape has over 24m hotspots on its map, and aims to have added and quality-checked 100m by 2017. It uses crowdsourcing extensively to add locations and feed data into its algorithms, which enable it to give customers a classification of each hotspot on its map. Its software thus identifies the ‘best connection’ in a location, and updates to the system are increasingly doing that in a dynamic way which reflects changes in conditions (such as a new nearby access point causing interference).

The proprietary quality of experience algorithms are incorporated in a smartphone app, which chooses the best available connection. These decisions can be overridden by operator policies or consumer choice, depending how the system is configured, but Devicescape says most end users leave ‘always best connected’ as their default choice.

The ratings can also be fed into carriers’ automatic traffic management tools, which choose the connection on the user’s behalf based on quality, application, tariff and so on. When an operator signs up, all its Wi-Fi-enabled devices can connect seamlessly to the virtual network and the operator chooses the overall policy. Currently these are fairly unsophisticated – the choices are ‘Wi-Fi first, LTE first, Wi-Fi only and best connected’, but the company aims to add other choices such as ‘choose cheapest for texts and video, best connected for voice, and LTE for maps’.

There are various strands to the Devicescape model. As well as offload/roaming deals with operators, it offers data analytics and marketing services to operators and venues, and licenses its software and data to third parties such as Microsoft and Intel, for inclusion in their Wi-Fi discovery platforms. It powers Microsoft Datasense, a service which Verizon has exclusively licensed in the US.

To compete with Devicescape, smaller providers tend to focus on ever-more sophisticated algorithms for supporting connection decisions. The twist in WeFi’s platform is that it includes ANDSF client/server software to support automated policy-driven decisions in a 3GPP-compliant way, and so it is heavily focused on mobile operators and the intersection between Wi-Fi and cellular.

It also claims to feed a wider range of data into its software to make more accurate quality ratings on hotspots. It has made extensive use of social media recommendations with its ‘socially curated’ system.

Data analytics will be a rising opportunity for curated Wi-Fi providers, as operators get more concerned about monitoring quality of experience. Devicescape updated its platform earlier this year to improve these offerings and can market information about users’ behaviour to carriers and marketers, as well as the venues themselves.

In the latter case, the analytics may be offered for free, as an incentive for them to join the virtual network. Another example is the provider’s PopWi-Fi software, which helps venues create proximity-based marketing systems to target promotions, directly or on behalf of third party brands, at their hotspot users, or to secure feedback from them.

Although there are rising opportunities, there are also several important issues which curated Wi-Fi providers will need to address. One is that, like the network owners themselves, they will have to adapt to rising expectations among many users groups. Yesterday’s ‘carrier-grade’ experience will quickly become tomorrow’s ‘best effort’, especially when video is in heavy use, since erratic streaming performance is so visible to the user. So the curators will need to adapt their quality metrics and their policies to stay in tune with public perceptions, and so keep consumers and operator partners satisfied.

A second issue is one that faces carriers too – how far consumers will permit their providers to decide on the best available connection, rather than selecting it themselves. Many operator strategies rely on making the choice for the subscribers, in order to balance the traffic between Wi-Fi and cellular, for an MNO, or reduce the usage of cellular, for an MVNO. If most consumers decide to make their own selections, part of the value proposition for the operator is lost.

A third challenge is one that faces every player in the Wi-Fi value chain – how to keep increasing revenues, when actual access fees are under constant pressure. Hence the expansion of new services which harness the hotspot maps but do not require consumer spending, such as proximity marketing platforms.

Manage from the Cloud

Over the horizon, different approaches to curated carrier-class Wi-Fi will emerge, such as cloud-based ‘hotspot as a service’ offerings, which will combine virtual networks with the kind of traffic management and OSS tools which are more familiar to major carriers. Companies such as Anyfi provide software-defined controller to manage the access points and residential gateways and enforce policy control with a remote firmware download which could render low-end access points and residential gateways closer to carrier-grade.

Anyfi.net software is designed to protect the user experience of the residential subscriber, while also letting the residential gateway be used as a remote radio head. Anyfi.net software integrates closely with the radio and allows secure distribution of mobile Wi-Fi services. The WPA2 security mechanism that normally only protects data over the air is extended over the backhaul, through a Wi-Fi over IP tunnel, providing end-to-end encryption for each subscriber. There is no need for any additional software in the device – it’s all standard Wi-Fi from the device point of view. For now Anyfi focuses on the wireline carriers as they expand their Wi-Fi footprint.

For now though, curated virtual Wi-Fi networks provide a quick and affordable way for carriers to offer their customers access to a large network of hotspots with a level of reassurance about quality. That will help many companies cross the bridge from best effort to carrier-grade, just as that becomes more important to their customers.

Don’t forget to attend our Webinar on Carrier Wi-FI Trends on December 9, 2014 at 11 AM EDT USA

The industry is also meeting next week at the Wi-Fi Innovation Summit in Copenhagen under the flamboyant leadership of Claus Hetting. Details here

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Mr. Fellah, is a Senior Analyst and founder of Maravedis with 20-year experience in the wireless industry. He authored various landmark reports on Wi-Fi, LTE, 4G and technology trends in various industries including retail, restaurant and hospitality. He is regularly asked to speak at leading wireless and marketing events and to contribute to various influential portals and magazines such as RCR Wireless, 4G 360, Rethink Wireless, The Mobile Network, Telecom Reseller to name a few. He is a Certified Wireless Network Administrator (CWNA) and Certified Wireless Technology Specialist (CWTS).