As network capacity is outstripped by exploding subscriber demands, ahead of the upcoming Mobile World Congress, will mobile operators finally embrace what was until recently a ‘dirty little word’ – Wi-Fi?
Millions of smartphone users know from painful experience: mobile operators have a real problem. Smart phones and flat-rate data plans are clogging cellular networks with data traffic — often making it difficult, if not impossible, to hold even a simple phone conversation during rush hour in big cities around the world. Mobile data traffic today is growing 2.4 times faster than global fixed broadband data traffic with the average mobile broadband connection generating about 1.3GB per month. By 2014, the average connection is expected to see 7GB per month.
“In turn, operators are under tremendous pressure to offer faster data speeds to keep up with insatiable user demand for media-rich applications,” says Selina Lo, President and CEO of Ruckus Wireless. “And the implications are dire: the cost of transporting data is expected to outpace revenue. And a poor user experience resulting from network congestion will result in churn, one of the largest costs carriers incur. Carriers in every major market around the world are putting to work any and every tool they can get their hands on, as quickly as possible, to offload data traffic from their cellular networks. Over the next couple of years, we’ll likely see a flurry of activity as operators look to:
• add more radio equipment to high-traffic areas,
• increase the bandwidth of backhaul links,
• implement traffic controls in the network core,
• acquire new or re-purposed spectrum and (most importantly)
• embrace the technology that until recently was a dirty word for mobile operators: Wi-Fi.”
Wanted: Smarter Wi-Fi
Given the enormous installed-base of Wi-Fi chips within virtually every conceivable device on the planet, Wi-Fi represents one of the most expedient and cost-effective ways to increase both capacity and coverage of cellular networks with a tight focus on where traffic is heaviest. “But uncontrollable and unpredictable, Wi-Fi has historically been viewed as flaky – used by carriers as a technology of convenience to deliver best effort connectivity to users in hotspots. Best effort, however, is no longer acceptable when your Tablet runs R1000 and your monthly broadband subscription nibbles away at your disposable income,” continues Lo.
Operators are now taking a much more strategic view of Wi-Fi, tapping a new generation of smarter technology that gives it the reliability and sophistication to become a full partner within mobile network infrastructure and on a much larger scale. Yet three key factors stand in the way:
1. The subscriber experience from cellular to Wi-Fi must be seamless,
2. The integration between the 3G and Wi-Fi networks must be tight, and
3. The Wi-Fi gear must use smart antennas.
“Both subscriber and operator experiences with hotspots have proven that fussy sign-on procedures throw a big, wet blanket on the idea of traffic offload over Wi-Fi. If you have to stop to hunt around for the right network ID and then tap a username and password you can’t remember into your tiny smartphone just to get Wi-Fi access, you’re rarely going to bother with all that when you can just use 3G, where none of that is necessary,” adds Lo.
The good news is a complete set of very secure and completely automatic sign-on procedures is already built into many smartphones. It exchanges the equivalent of a username and password with the 3G network all the time, you just don’t see it. This new Wi-Fi approach takes advantage of that same 3G sign-on mechanism to make hotspot use equally automatic and transparent. “Of course using this “seamless” sign-on mechanism is predicated on tighter integration between the Wi-Fi and cellular networks. This means throwing up more Wi-Fi hotspots won’t solve the problem. Like most technologies today that look elegant and simple on the outside, there is a ton of complexity behind the scenes that makes the seamless 3G/Wi-Fi experience all possible. Networkers from both the 3G and Wi-Fi industry are busily solving this integration challenge now,” says Lo. “But unless you have good Wi-Fi coverage and stable Wi-Fi performance where you need it, no amount of seamless sign-on and fancy network integration is going to help.”
The 3G operators’ collective allergy to Wi-Fi has been well founded. Wi-Fi is an unlicensed-band technology, which means that anyone can put up an access point right next to yours, or run their interference-generating microwave, blue-tooth headset or cordless phone next door, at any time. To make matters worse, in the places where 3G network traffic problems are the most extreme — primarily dense urban environments —there’s already a lot of Wi-Fi to cause interference. However, a new generation of smarter Wi-Fi technology has been developed to actively ignore interference from competing networks, constantly steering signals around obstacles and other problems that wreaked havoc on Wi-Fi performance. This smarter Wi-Fi technology sees and hears interference and delivers high bandwidth coverage even in the dense urban markets littered with radio noise.
“Of the many tools at operators’ disposal, smarter Wi-Fi is among the easiest to put to work quickly. And based on the accelerating activity we’ve seen in the past six months, you can expect to see rapid expansion of Wi-Fi networks worldwide that will enable you to enjoy the a truly reliable and high-bandwidth experience on your smart phone you’ve been waiting for, while freeing the 3G networks up to bring back the uninterrupted voice calls you’ve been missing,” concludes Lo.
Ruckus Wireless will be exhibiting at Mobile World Congress. To visit their stand, visit Booth #2D62 between 27 February – 1 March 2012.