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As WiFi takes on carrier-grade qualities, it will increasingly become a tool for service providers which do not own spectrum. Cable operators in the US and Europe are starting to deploy WiFi hotspots and homespots to add wireless services to their multiplay bundles, while minimizing their reliance on expensive MVNO deals with spectrum holders.
The success of such strategies depends partly on scale. For WiFi-first or WiFi-only propositions to suit the needs both of consumers and providers, good quality WiFi must appear almost as ubiquitous as cellular. The fewer occasions when a user needs to switch to a cellular connection, the lower the costs for them and their carrier.
No wonder then, that we are seeing a wave of deals between hotspot and homespot owners, to increase roaming and sharing across many regions of the world. The major US cablecos have their huge Cable WiFi base. Earlier this month, business-focused aggregator iPass announced deals with FON and Devicescape, to bring it close to its target of offering customers 50m access points worldwide. Now Devicescape is also teaming up with BandwidthX, the pioneer in on-demand WiFi capacity.
The new alliance highlights two important aspects of the WiFi opportunity for service providers. One is quality. While a technology in licence-exempt spectrum cannot offer the same quality assurances as a licensed cellular network, WiFi QoS is improving steadily, thanks to technology enhancements, but also the rise of hotspot operators which offer a curated service, assessing the credentials of the access point before connecting the customer.
Devicescape, for instance, promises a Curated Virtual Network (CVN), which is an important element of its iPass deal. iPass has integrated the CVN into its global WiFi network. This ensures that any hotspot in the network meets certain standards of quality and security. iPass’s software carries out anonymous usage data aggregation to determine a hotspot’s location, signal strength and speed and to rate its performance and reliability accordingly. It then uses predictive analytics to connect users automatically to the best location in range. It will also use its analytics to identify areas where it needs to add new hotspots to improve coverage or capacity.
Such tools offer the providers which use the iPass/Devicescape locations the kind of tools that mobile operators are accustomed to.
The second aspect of Devicescape’s growing web of partnerships is that, in some cases, WiFi is leaping ahead of cellular in technologies which are likely to be important in 5G. One of these is dynamic, on-demand provision of wireless capacity to service providers, which has the potential to lower the barriers to entry for smaller or specialist applications, and to set a marketplace price for wireless.
Here BandwidthX has taken a significant first step, well ahead of mobile players, which remain embedded in their rigid MVNO structures. It has pioneered a marketplace system for WiFi, which matches hotspot owners to those needing capacity and calculates a market fee.
Devicescape will now allow providers to buy access to its crowdsourced CVN of about 20m amenity WiFi hotspots on a pay-as-you-go basis, via its partner’s BxMarket platform. Customers will be able to secure a capacity boost where and when they need it, using the BxMarket trading platform, which matches them with unused capacity in operators’ (and now aggregators’) networks.
“As connectivity services evolve to reflect the growing strategic value of WiFi to operators, a variety of means by which they can harness its benefits is required,” said Dave Fraser, CEO of Devicescape. “Real time WiFi capacity trading as managed by BandwidthX is exactly the kind of innovation we believe will help accelerate the full integration of all forms of connectivity into a single, coherent smartphone service.”
His counterpart at BandwidthX, Pertti Visuri, said in a statement: “By applying the BxMarket function of precisely controlling when, where, what kind, and how much WiFi each mobile device will use, we believe that WiFi can provide the highest value to mobile operators.”