WiFi comes of age at Mobile World Congress

Features

But operators must be careful with the customer experience

By Heather McLean

Wi-Fi data offload from the mobile network has come of age, according to key businesses in the Wi-Fi space. BelAir, Stoke, Ruckus Wireless, Ericsson and Orange have all stated that Wi-Fi is now a key technology in the bid to reduce capacity challenges in mobile networks.

Steven Hartley, practice leader of Ovum’s telco strategy practice, said Orange CTO Thierry Bonhomme stated yesterday evening that deploying Wi-Fi was as important as rolling out LTE. Hartley commented: “Orange has made no secret of its fondness for Wi-Fi over the years, but combining this statement with the prevalence of Wi-Fi announcements at MWC 2012 is testimony to the fact that it is no longer Wi-Fi 'or' cellular, but Wi-Fi 'and' cellular that is key to operators handling future traffic demands.”


BelAir said the use of Wi-Fi for data offload reflects a genuine hetnet model, as operators finally step up and embrace small cell technology. Husnain Bajwa, vice president of product marketing at BelAir, told Mobile Europe, “Wi-Fi offload will be a substantial story this year. Data consumption by end users is ever-increasing, and the gigabit consumer is among us now, with the top 2% to 3% of mobile subscribers are using more than 5GB per month. The hunger for data never seems to abate and video looks like it will be a big driver.

“If a mobile operator deploys 35 to 40 of our access points in a hot zone, they can easily offload 60 terabytes of data a year. That means substantial savings for mobile operators as it is far cheaper to roll out Wi-Fi than 3G, and a significantly improved user experience; the user benefits on Wi-Fi, and so does everyone on the mobile network because that heavy traffic is moved over.”

Last week BelAir announced it has been acquired by Ericsson, which is using the purchase to offer an integrated carrier Wi-Fi offering into the heart of the Ericsson hetnet strategy, and also to offer carrier grade Wi-Fi as a standalone product.

Yesterday Ericsson announced the introduction of small cell products, including a pico radio base station with integrated Wi-Fi, the Pico RBS. Hans Vestberg, president and CEO of Ericsson, said this means it is now possible to easily add small cells to the network in the form of Ericsson's new small RBS products, using both 3GPP-licensed spectrum and unlicensed spectrum such as Wi-Fi, transported over the same backhaul.

Meanwhile, Ruckus Wireless yesterday launched SmartCell, a new line of small cell products specifically designed for service providers that includes the SmartCell 8800, a multi-radio outdoor access node developed to integrate 3G, 4G, Wi-Fi and backhaul into a single, lightweight, small form factor; and the SmartCell 200, the first scalable small cell hetnet  edge gateway capable of supporting hundreds of thousands of Ruckus or non-Ruckus access points and millions of clients, as well as providing standards-based 3GPP integration into existing and future mobile core infrastructures.

Dan McBride, vice president of marketing at Stoke, commented, “Wi-Fi is now no longer a pariah to mobile operators; it’s needed to make capacity. In 2012 operators will really move forward in their Wi-Fi data offload. This is the second wave of Wi-Fi. The first wave was drowned out by 3G, but then smartphones came along and 3G crapped out, so now everyone’s saying they need Wi-Fi again.”

However, McBride warned that operators should be careful in how they deal with maintaining the customer relationship with regard to Wi-Fi for data offload. He explained, “Mobile operators authenticate users on Wi-Fi, but then they set them adrift. Wi-Fi is fine as short term relief to capacity overload, but it does lead to distance between the operator and customer, and user churn increases.

"This dump to Wi-Fi is a tactical offload technique, driven normally by the operations team who are the ones with the congested network to deal with. We need to include the guys with a little longer range view of the customer as well; understanding the user experience is important.”