WBA conference points the way to 2020 for carrier WiFi


by Caroline Gabriel and Adlane Fellah

Last week saw the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), which represents WiFi service providers round the world, holding its WiFi Global Congress event in London. The group announced 22 new members including Swisscom and Purple WiFi, bringing its membership to 108, collectively supporting 10m hotspots and one billion users worldwide.

Discussions at the conference were wide-ranging, reflecting the broad role that WiFi is increasingly taking in the strategies of many kinds of provider. That is mirrored, also, in the remit of the WBA itself. Its core activities revolve around roaming frameworks (the purpose for which it was founded) and the Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) initiative, supporting seamless authentication and hand-off between public WLANs and between WiFi and cellular.

However, the Alliance is now enabling conversations among its members focused on the business models that WiFi supports, not just the technologies, and it set out its vision for the road to 2020 at the event, mapping the evolution of new business cases on the back of Carrier WiFi and NGH, which will, in turn, feed into the ‘5G’ platform, however that may look.

The WBA commissioned a report from research group Maravedis-Rethink to investigate those issues and how the work being done now on expanding the WiFi and WiFi/cellular business models will contribute to the diverse worlds of 5G and the internet of things.

The past few years have seen a massive expansion of public WiFi around the world, in parallel the technology platform has been evolving rapidly and is now emerging as a fully carrier-grade network, poised to revolutionize the services and business models which it can support. As these networks have become increasingly robust, with higher levels of QoS and bandwidth they have provided a platform for service innovation and development.

The report finds that essential attributes of carrier-grade WiFi – such as wider roaming, subscriber management, and improved QoS and security – will enable new services including high quality voice services, location and proximity, smart city, consumer IoT, quad play services and HetNets.

“The past few years have been transformative for the WiFi industry. The technology is now carrier-grade, having matured in terms of robustness, bandwidth and user experience. This has led to an explosion of deployments around the world creating the perfect environment for service innovation,” said Shrikant Shenwai, CEO of the WBA. “This shift will spark an explosion in the range of services which consumers and enterprises can use, and in the monetization options for operators. “

The complete report is available for download from the Maravedis store. 

The report highlights that carrier WiFi is taking a wider role in MNO strategies than its traditional support for offloading data from the hard-pressed 3G or 4G networks. Mobile operators are starting to move towards full HetNets – dense networks which will harness seamless pools of capacity in licensed and unlicensed spectrum – and are also using WiFi to plug gaps in coverage, as seen in complementary VoWiFi and VoLTE roll-outs by companies like the UK’s EE.

However, offload remains an important attraction of WiFi for many operators too. At another show, Broadband Asia in Singapore, KDDI of Japan said that, three years ago, it could not get much beyond the 30% mark in terms of traffic offloaded, because users often faced connection issues with WiFi, and because it was still offering unlimited cellular plans, reducing customers’ incentive to move to a WLAN. Since then, it has distributed about 3m free WiFi access points, while introducing tiered cellular pricing, and so has seen the 30% figure leap to 57%.

Fumio Watanabe, chairman of KDDI’s R&D Laboratories, said during the keynote address that the firm’s LTE capex bill has also fallen by more than 50%. “We hit the 57% target last fiscal year, which ended 31 March, and aim to expand the offload to 65% this fiscal year, which will further reduce our LTE capex,” he said.

The carrier will also use other methods to address the data explosion, including the implementation of 8×8 MIMO antenna arrays for LTE networks in the 3.5 GHz band, probably in 2017. That will support 1Gbps download speeds, but KDDI is still working with its ecosystem to get chipsets ready.

Back in London, there were some carrier-oriented launches by WiFi vendors, including Ruckus Wireless, which announced its SmartZone software. This was developed for operators but is now being extended to enterprises, whether they are rolling out and enhancing WLANs for internal use or to provide services to their own customers (a rising percentage of carrier-grade hotspots are still deployed by venues such as arenas, malls and hotels, rather than operators).

SmartZone provides a unified software architecture across Ruckus WLAN controllers, for appliance, virtualized and cloud environments, and claims to scale to manage up to 300,000 devices. It can support single and multiple tenancy scenarios, and cloud-based ‘pay as you grow’.

Ruckus also said it had introduced commercial products certified for compliance with the WiFi Alliance’s Passpoint/Hotspot 2.0 release 2 specifications. Hotspot 2.0, Release 2 introduces new capabilities that standardize the provisioning and lifecycle management of user credentials, such as how they are securely provisioned, stay valid, and are used in network selection and service policy enforcement.  Release 2 also provides flexible and automatic remediation of client devices if subscriptions are updated or policy changed.

Carrier Wi-Fi Roaming is Making Limited Progress

Although WBA’s CEO Shrikant Shenwai believes that there is significant momentum behind the worldwide expansion of Carrier Wi-Fi roaming, only a small handful of countries are actively pursuing the technology. This is in spite of the fact that many Carrier Wi-Fi networks and smartphones are already fully compatible with Passpoint and Next Generation Hotspot technology.

The lack of a roaming hub, similar to what GSM operators use, is seen as one of the major reasons why the adoption of Carrier Wi-Fi is happening so slowly. Although cellular operators typically handle roaming through direct peer-to-peer agreements, they rely on well-established 3GPP specifications and a long history of working together. Being younger, the Wi-Fi industry must work through a huge variety of technical and operational issues to reach a point where Carrier Wi-Fi roaming can be more standardized. The WBA intends to play an important role in that process.

The Future of Wi-Fi

So, what does the future hold for Wi-Fi? Analysts expect that the Wi-Fi industry will work harder to align itself and collaborate more with the cellular industry to improve the reliability and availability of seamless roaming. Technologies like Passport will offer companies a competitive advantage by allowing customers to use less of their increasingly expensive cellular data.

Also, 802.11ac Wave 2 which provides data rates of up to 800Mbps and Multi-User MIMO will work together to help Wi-Fi networks scale and increase capacity. And, 802.11ah will help power the Internet of Things by allowing for longer ranges and a greater number of device connectivity for each access point.

The WBA’s next Global Wi-Fi Congress will be held in San Jose, California in October.

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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).