Wi-Fi a key enabler for carriers to fill in the holes

October 26, 2015 //By Jean-Pierre Joosting
Wi-Fi in the form of Carrier Grade is gaining traction rapidly as an inexpensive way for carriers to unify their hotspots and provide coverage in areas where cellular radio is weak. Further, Wi-Fi is providing a way to cover rural areas cost effectively, which has been a bone of contention for carriers since the beginning of the mobile revolution.

Recently the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) published its annual report on the state of the Wi-Fi ecosystem, compiled by global research company Maravedis-Rethink, which reveals that 57% of operators have firm timelines in place for the deployment of Carrier-Grade network architecture. The report also contends that as confidence grows in Carrier-Grade Wi-Fi, the shift away from Best Effort networks will continue to gather speed.

“Increased Operator confidence in Carrier grade Wi-Fi technology has led to a surge in the growth of deployments over the past 12 months and set a trend that will to continue. Within 5 years there will be as much as a 70% rise in the number of Carrier-grade public Wi-Fi hotspots deployed, vastly outnumbering current best effort,” said Shrikant Shenwai, CEO of the WBA.

On October 12th the UK House of Commons debated network coverage ‘notspots’, which highlights the challenges faced by mobile network operators in delivering ubiquitous service. But their problems are not restricted to remote and rural areas as there are numerous total or partial notspots in urban environments as well, thanks to densely packed buildings that obstruct the cellular signal.

Dave Fraser, CEO, Devicescape says “In the UK, free amenity Wi-Fi of the kind offered by numerous consumer facing businesses and premises owners has become a significant connectivity resource, delivering essential backup when the cellular network struggles to deliver optimum performance indoors. The businesses that make it available to their customers have, as a result, become important connectivity providers in their own right.

“This amenity Wi-Fi exists on a scale that is simply too expensive and impractical to replicate with traditional infrastructure deployment but it can be integrated into a wider connectivity service. Only by blending all forms of available connectivity can operators deliver the consistency today's consumer requires. Because even if they reach 100% geographic coverage, cellular service will still cease at the thresholds of numerous buildings, both public and domestic.”

However, carriers and cable companies own a significant number of hotspots. A recent Bloomberg report claims that Comcast aims to combine their millions of Wi-Fi hotspots with cellular to challenge the incumbent big four wireless carriers in the USA. This hybrid Wi-Fi/Cellular network will ironically enable Comcast to enter the cellular market in the USA in spite of the high barriers of entry and to do it cost-effectively. Comcast can do this as they struck a deal with Verizon in 2011 giving them the right to resell Verizon’s cellular service.

This shows that carriers need to leverage their Wi-Fi to drive down costs and fill in the ‘notspots’ that they have been promising to do for years. Wi-Fi has the potential to cover most indoor and pavement use cases in urban areas, but it also can offer a lifeline to rural areas.

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