With the explosion of smartphones, tablets and data-rich services, the prospect of 4G networks is a welcome breath of fresh air. But still, in this article I’d like to outline my view that it is also time for operators to put WiFi offloading high on their agendas to offset the capacity issues and reduce capital expenditure on cellular infrastructure.
Some would say that the rise of 4G networks was an inevitable consequence of the escalating demands of technology applications. Mobile networks are faced with rapidly increasing levels of data-traffic, with the number of smartphones tripling in 2011, and users becoming ever more familiar with the mobile availability of social networking services, streamed music and video.
With this always-on culture, users expect mobile Internet access from anywhere at any time. Wide-reaching 3G and 4G networks are more than capable of providing such a service.
However the current 4G LTE networks offer only about 2x the spectral efficiency of HSPA+, and therefore can only hold back the tide of demand so much before they too are flooded with data traffic. In fact, in certain cases such as with Verizon, the surging demand is on pace to fully utilize the new LTE capacity as early as 2013. This is where WiFi offloading becomes a vital gear in the mobile networks’ machinery.
Put simply, WiFi offloading is about relieving as much pressure as possible from the 4G networks, with their finite overall bandwidth, by offloading data onto WiFi networks, which offer a much greater accumulated bandwidth.
The take-up on WiFi offload is currently low due to the lack of solutions that make the process seamless for the user, and carrier-grade. No matter what the benefits are, users are unlikely to spend two minutes seeking out a WiFi network in order to send an e-mail or post a Twitter update.
Furthermore, the perceived drawbacks outweigh the benefits from the point of view of mobile operators. One argument is that taking users off 4G networks may be detrimental to revenue, since users are paying for a consistent, steady, and unfettered mobile Internet, and manual offload to unknown WiFi hotspots doesn’t offer that high quality of service.
There are also complications around user traceability when offloading data onto WiFi networks, where the carrier no longer plays any role in the delivery of data traffic.
With those perceived drawbacks in mind, why is WiFi offloading an attractive option to mobile operators hosting 4G networks? The short answer is necessity: The rising demand for data, the lack of available spectrum, and the cost of cellular infrastructure require new alternatives. The three best known approaches to rolling out a WiFi offloading network are costly and have limited results in terms of reach.
The first of these is to invest in an operator-owned network, which with all the cost of buying equipment and obtaining planning permission for WiFi routers to be installed is expensive. The second approach is to partner with a network provider, as exemplified by Ericsson with its recent acquisition of Bel-Air Networks. The third approach is to install a simple app in the smartphone that seeks WiFi aggressively. But this offers carriers no quality control, and succeeds at accessing very few hotspots outside of the home and workplace.
However, there is a fourth, relatively new solution. This approach is to aggregate the recent mass-proliferation of public WiFi hotspots and harness them into something more usable. But to do so, mobile operators face the problem of verifying hotspots in terms of quality of service and security, a potentially damaging issue as offloading users onto poor quality hotspots reflects negatively on the mobile provider itself.
Harnessing the huge number of global public WiFi hotspots gives mobile operators a huge reach of locations on which to provide a data offload service for their users. By automatically offloading data-traffic in coffee shops, bars, eateries, shops and public transport locations, capacity on 4G networks is freed up to accommodate other users.
The challenge, of course, remains in maintaining the traceability and quality of the offload user experience. Given how proud we are of our own performance in these areas, we recommend that network operators hold their offload partners to book on these metrics.
So WiFi offload can reduce cost, reduce capacity utilization, and improve the user experience. Revenue generation is also possible. Since access to the CVN is now part of the carrier’s network offering, it could be measured, metered, and billed as mobile network access. Hotspots manually entered by the subscriber (such as home and work) would, of course, be excluded. This means that any mobile data use can be charged based on the pricing strategy of the mobile operator.
Public WiFi offloading has huge potential for mobile operators in terms of providing a high quality of service to their users from a huge and growing number of locations, often where demand is most dense. This local area WiFi offloading is complementary to 4G networks’ wide area coverage. What is important is that 4G networks are safeguarded against unnecessary overuse, and that data-rich services are offloaded wherever possible.