Network Operators Get Serious About Wi-Fi

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The world's cellular industry is coming to Barcelona Spain next week for Mobile World Congress. But one of the key topics will be an entirely different radio technology: Wi-Fi.

At MWC, you'll be see a massive change in the industry's thinking about this unlicensed radio standard, now a standard part of smartphones, tablets, gaming devices, and even cameras. Faced with soaring mobile data demand, a range of network and service providers want to "tame" Wi-Fi, making it behave as conveniently, predictably, and reliably as cellular phone calls. Among other things, that change could spell the end of "free Wi-Fi."

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"There's a re-emergence of the relevance of Wi-Fi," says Andrew Borg, research director enterprise communications at consultancy Aberdeen Group.

Borg says carriers are turning to Wi-Fi in part to make use of unlicensed spectrum to offload data traffic from stressed 3G and even 4G networks, in areas dense with users and devices. But perhaps more important, the carrier embrace of Wi-Fi is an attempt to re-establish themselves as more than just a data connection. "Look at all the services and content being delivered on the mobile Web, by 'over the top' vendors like Google and Facebook," Borg says. "Carriers have become a dumb pipe and don't share in the revenue being generated by that content."

New gateway technologies and industry specifications now make it possible to truly integrate Wi-Fi with the carrier's core services, and to add intelligence that makes 3G offload and an array of other value-added services really viable, Borg says. Carriers can authenticate a user via a Wi-Fi connection, secure the link, share information with roaming partners for seamless hand-offs between access points, and, potentially, bill for some of all of this added value.

Will this mean the end of free Wi-Fi? "Let's put it this way: free Wi-Fi ended a while ago," he laughs. "Mostly [free Wi-Fi today means] you get islands of connectivity in some retail locations." The real value, he argues, is being able to aggregate thousands of hotspots, and provide cellphone-like ease of use, security, and services.

Consider these announcements in the run-up to MWC, which starts Monday:

+ A Wi-Fi Alliance whitepaper this week outlined the "Wi-Fi Certified Passpoint" project, which creates a set of specifications to create an "interoperable platform to streamline Wi-Fi access in public hotspots." First Passpoint features are due in mid-2012: devices automatically identify and connect to Passpoint networks with no user intervention, automatic network authentication, and WPA2-Enterprise to secure the link.

+ The Wireless Broadband Alliance, a collection of network operators, announced successful tests of what WBA calls the "Next Generation Hotspot," based in part on Passpoint and other WFA specs. The specs and guidelines handle automatic authentication techniques, hand-offs, and identity management. The goal, says WBA Chairman Chris Bruce is "to make it as easy and seamless to connect to Wi-Fi hotspots as it is to make a cellular phone call." Production deployments are likely to start in early 2013.

+ Greenpacket says it completed two related trials: one with a carrier to stream smoothly IP TV video between 3G and Wi-Fi networks; the second with Stoke, using the latter's newly announced Wi-Fi Exchange gateway, to switch smartphone sessions seamlessly between 3G and Wi-Fi networks.

+ WeFi, a Wi-Fi network provider, will show its WeANDSF software, which crowdsources real-time details of active Wi-Fi access points, and lets operators control where and how their subscribers can connect to either Wi-Fi or cellular networks.

+ Basestation vendor Ericsson announced this week that it's buying BelAir Networks, a Canadian Wi-Fi vendor that specialized in the outdoor, high-performance Wi-Fi radios. In a statement, Ericsson said the deal "will help accelerate the integration of Wi-Fi and cellular technologies."

+ Alcatel-Lucent will build a live network at MWC of metro cells and Wi-Fi, based on its lightRadio Wi-Fi architecture, letting smartphone users authenticate on Wi-Fi using their handset's SIM card, and then move between both networks.

+ Wi-Fi vendor Ruckus Wireless will demonstrate its just announced SmartCell product line, which are carrier-class, multi-radio, 802.11n Wi-Fi access points that can incorporate 3G or 4G radios for cellular coverage.

Carrier interest is already spurring Wi-Fi gear sales. Dell-Oro Group, a market researcher, estimates that the growth rate of wireless LAN access point sales jumped from a range of 40% to 80% per quarter in late 2010 and early 2011, to well over 100% per quarter later in the year. The main cause for the surge was Wi-Fi deployments by various network operators, says analyst Chris DePuy.

"These providers want to differentiate their service, and when you are using a smartphone and it goes very fast, you're happier," he says. "I can't put it any simpler than that." And that satisfaction is affordable: Wi-Fi deployments in the unlicensed bands is vastly cheaper than buying spectrum, leasing real estate, building towers and investing in base stations. "Wi-Fi with all its shortcomings can solve many of those problems for very dense areas at a far lower cost," Depuy says.

New York City-based Towerstream, which specializes in last-mile 4G wireless connectivity for businesses, tested the idea of adding Wi-Fi connectivity, via Ruckus Wireless gear, to its network, and backhauling the resulting traffic over its existing gigabit wireless backhaul links. Every Wi-Fi hotspot plugs directly into this high-capacity backhaul network. Now, the company offers over 1,200 access points in Manhattan, is expanding availability in San Francisco, and is in talks or trials with several U.S. carriers, which it won't name.

"Today, people are spending much more on smartphones and data plans," says Arthur Giftakis, Towerstream's vice president of engineering and network operations. "If you've got a $300 smartphone and a $30 a month data plan, the subscribers better have a quality experience."

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.


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