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Carrier Wi-Fi comes of age in 2013

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All indications point to full speed ahead for service provider Wi-Fi deployments in 2013.  While Wi-Fi has been around for quite some time as a consumer and enterprise technology, it has never garnered the kind of attention that it will this year.

All indications point to full speed ahead for service provider Wi-Fi deployments in 2013 (image: file)

The reason? Wi-Fi is seen as the most economical and capacity-rich technology to help carriers address the tremendous acceleration in mobile data traffic – particularly within high-density areas. 

Most geographies are seeing traffic growth of 50 to 100% year-on-year with no end in sight.  It is easy to do the math here and see that this will easily overwhelm the existing mobile infrastructure, even with LTE deployments.

Why Wi-Fi?  Why now?

Wi-Fi is rapidly emerging as a credible RAN (radio access network) technology that can be deployed alongside of 3G and LTE in a mobile network. Initial Wi-Fi deployments were all about offload and capacity injection. Now the future is much more about integration into the core. This enables the user to have an “always-best-connected” experience, regardless of location or radio access technology. Users will not need to know or care about Wi-Fi authentication or roaming – it will all be as automatic and secure as in the 3G/LTE world.

Here are the pieces that are all coming together in 2013:

1.    Device Support. In the Autumn of 2012, Apple joined the Android camp in moving to dual-mode smartphones. By adding 5GHz support, it opens these devices up to a huge pool of spectrum that can approach 500MHz in many geographies.  Even the largest mobile operators seldom have more than 100MHz of licensed spectrum in major cities.  This will push more and more smartphones users to look to the Wi-Fi bands to get connected.

2.    Transparent Connectivity.  After many years of work the industry is on track to begin commercialising Hotspot 2.0. This makes Wi-Fi as easy to use and as secure as cellular.  Hotspot 2.0 capable APs are already shipping from the major infrastructure vendors and smartphones should emerge early in the new year. With the industry forecasting shipments of nearly a billion smartphones in 2013, and with operators and enterprises deploying Hotspot 2.0-ready infrastructure by the millions of units, this technology will rapidly sweep throughout the world.  Users will no longer have to think about SSIDs and authentication, instead Wi-Fi will just weave itself into the fabric of the world’s mobile networks.

3.    Core Integration.  To truly become just another mobile RAN technology, it will be necessary to backhaul traffic into the mobile packet core.  This allows subscribers to get the same set of services regardless of the radio access technology.  These services include billing (pre-paid and post), policy, lawful intercept, roaming, authentication, addressing, mobility management, content filtering, and the list goes on and on.  It even opens up the possibility of session persistence as a user moves between the 3G/LTE RANs and the Wi-Fi RAN.  The key ingredient here is Trusted WLAN Access per 3GPP standards.  This approach requires a gateway that can bridge the world of the Wi-Fi RAN to the mobile packet core.

4.    High Density.  Build-outs in very high-density venues continue unabated.  These are often the locations where Wi-Fi offers the most compelling solution.  These venues include stadiums, airports, arenas, convention centers, downtown city centers, college campuses, etc.   Users have now come to expect Wi-Fi when they walk into any of these locations and traditional neutral host DAS solutions just can’t scale as efficiently as Wi-Fi.

5.    Making Money.  One of Wi-Fi’s great strengths is that it is easily configured as a neutral host solution.  This means the venue owner only needs to let one operator into their building, and that operator can wholesale to all other operators.  These wholesale arrangements will start to emerge in the first half of the year.  The story gets even stronger as Wi-Fi is integrated into the mobile packet core and into mobile billing systems.  It will eventually become part of the service bundle that the subscriber pays for on a monthly basis.

6.    Management and Service Innovation.  And no list would be complete without a discussion of management systems and new service enablement.  This is another area where the mobile world excels, and we will start to see a host of platforms emerge here that can be used for analytics, reporting, location based services, personalization, loyalty programs and more.  Location is one of those very interesting options where a host of very targeted services can be directed at the user based on their location.

Make no mistake, Wi-Fi is slated to become the third major standard RAN technology in the mobile operator portfolio. And it looks to be the technology that will do most of the heavy lifting in the very high-density venues from where most of the traffic load is coming.

Steve Hratko, Director of Carrier Marketing at Ruckus Wireless

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