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WiFi offload moves into the heart of the cellcos’ 4G strategies

It’s always fun to remember when senior industry figures’ crystal balls cracked, and in a week of carrier WiFi news, a 2008 classic from Ericsson CMO

By PETER WHITE

Published: 7 July, 2011

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It’s always fun to remember when senior industry figures’ crystal balls cracked, and in a week of carrier WiFi news, a 2008 classic from Ericsson CMO Johan Bergendahl came to mind. The executive caused uproar when he predicted that WiFi hotspots would become as “irrelevant as telephone boxes”. Three years later, in reality WiFi is becoming more central to the operators’ network plans than phone boxes ever were.

The past couple of years have seen many carriers turning to WiFi to offload excess data from their overtaxed networks – whether AT&T’s extensive use of its growing hotspot network, or T-Mobile’s dual-mode indoor service combining WiFi and 3G. Emerging standards for cellular hand-off to WLans will enable operators to place WiFi more easily at the heart of their data strategies, and the introduction of high bandwidth 4G will not diminish the interest in offload. Indeed, the ‘4G’ landscape will see cellcos grasping as much spectrum and wireless capacity as they can, pooling license exempt WiFi with 3G, LTE and WiMAX in a desperate bid to stay one step ahead of consumer data usage.

Carrier grade WLans from vendors like Ruckus and BelAir; integration of femtocells with WiFi to maximize capacity and offload; intelligent discovery and hand-off so users are always on the best connection; harnessing of many spectrum bands, even including unlicensed frequencies for LTE – all these will be tactics to transform WiFi’s role in the cellco strategy. It will change from a fallback option, using fairly simplified techniques to offload the least valuable data, to a central aspect of the spectrum/data strategy, not just adding low cost capacity but supporting cellcos’ increasingly complex charging and prioritization structures.

According to Tolaga Research, about 20% of AT&T’s mobile data traffic runs on itsWiFi network and a further 60% on home WLans, especially now that the cellco has introduced tiered data tariffs. AT&T has usedWiFi aggressively to counter problems with overload of its 3G network, as highlighted by the iPhone, and most of its smartphones now support auto-authentication at AT&T-affiliated hotspots, which number more than 23,000. In the third quarter of 2010, AT&T handled 106.9mWiFi connections on its network, exceeding the total 85.5m connections made during the entire year of 2009.

Such trends will increasingly be seen at other carriers, and many techniques are emerging to make this easier for operators and users. One will be aWiFi Alliance certification program, announced in March and due to kick off in 2012, for a set of seamless roaming and authentication standards. TheWiFi Alliance Hotspot Program will address automatic discovery and selection of networks, based on user preference, operator policy and connection speed; automatic sign-on based on SIM cards or other methods; immediate provisioning of new user accounts; and WPA2 security.

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