The past few years have seen public Wi-Fi platforms evolving from supporting affordable broadband coverage and capacity for best effort access, to becoming truly carrier-grade. That process is still ongoing, but 2015 is seeing rising uptake of some of the technologies that are making Wi-Fi carrier-grade, such as Passpoint and Next Generation Hotspot (NGH), the 802.11ac upgrade, and closer integration with other operator networks such as
cable or cellular.
MNOs are planning heterogeneous networks between now and 2020. These aim to create a pool of seamless capacity, combining cellular and Wi-Fi and directing users’ connections intelligently to the most appropriate link.
That will represent a step on from mobile data offload, which has been the MNOs’ primary use of Wi-Fi until now. That has been important to the economics of mobile data because it has allowed MNOs to harness lower cost, licence-exempt spectrum as well as expensive 3G and 4G licences, but the decision of which traffic to offload has often been rather unsubtle, usually based on packet size or subscriber type.
In the HetNet, there is far more handover between cellular and Wi-Fi, with users moving between the two seamlessly, retaining their call or video stream, and all their security and identify settings, as they go. That places a large amount of capacity at the MNO’s disposal, combined with new levels of QoS across all links, so they can start to support their own quad plays by delivering video and TV over their wireless networks.
We have already seen how MNOs are using VoWi-Fi to extend coverage and capacity for IMS-based voice, and
the same can apply to IP video services. Some MNOs, such as T-Mobile USA, have launched Wi-Fi-first services in order to encourage consumers not to overuse the constrained cellular resource, which can then be retained for premium services for which licensed spectrum QoS is essential.
Mobile operators will also use Wi-Fi to expand their availability and coverage rapidly to support other emerging opportunities, such as some in the smart home and smart city sectors, even when they do not yet have LTE built out. Here, if they do not have suitable cellular connections in all locations, they can move into the new application space anyway and establish a position based on Wi-Fi.
The result, for some operators, especially in Japan, China, Korea and parts of the US, will be dense HetNets of small cells, working in different spectrum bands and combining Wi-Fi and cellular (and perhaps others in future, especially for the IoT). This will be enabled by the availability of BSS/OSS and mobile core platforms that can plan and manage Wi-Fi and cellular access points in the same way; and by the emergence of SON tools which optimize these mixed-mode networks, not just 3G and 4G. All that will enhance the MNO’s ability to build up huge pools of capacity in which connectivity can be intelligently handled to improve QoS, and in which resources can be targeted most efficiently where they are required.
And like MSOs, they will look to create ‘inside out’ coverage by encouraging subscribers to install dual-mode Wi-
Fi/cellular access points indoors, with both connections allowing for some measure of public access. Mobile and wireline operators will increasingly converge in order to support quad play services – in mature markets, where consumer ARPUs are stagnant and there are high levels of competition, operators will seek to boost their share of a household’s total media and communications spend, even if rates for individual elements are falling. For these converged carriers, building a huge pool of wireless capacity will be essential to winning those quad play customers, as they spend an increasingly percentage of their time consuming broadband and video services while on the move, not in the living room.