Posted: March 21, 2013

Wi-Fi offload is right now one of the hottest mobile industry trends: Wi-Fi can offload congested mobile cells and offer much-needed traffic and spectrum relief for mobile carriers. As the surge in smartphone traffic demand continues, many carriers are taking long and hard look at this option. This is happening even as established mobile network vendors shudder at the thought of having to give up their hard-won market terrain to lowly Wi-Fi – which, by the way, is not so lowly anymore.

But of course Wi-Fi is already here in a big way. By far the biggest installed base of Wi-Fi network belongs to small businesses, retail chains, and restaurants – Starbucks, MacDonald’s, etc. – and services are often offered as free. So how do millions of free Wi-Fi hotspots become part of a mobile carrier’s Wi-Fi offload network? One option is now on offer from the California-based company Devicescape – and they could be on the right track here. They claim to have solved the problem that mobile carriers worry about first: Wi-Fi service quality.

Fixing the quality issue

The problem is that most of the time ‘free Wi-Fi’ can be any service from great to zero, so using such free hotspots as a part of your cellular footprint can in the worst case offer your hard-won mobile subscribers a totally random Wi-Fi experience. More than anything, mobile carriers want to control precisely that: The quality of experience. According to Devicescape, this problem can be resolved with an intelligent client in the device. The device can even be dormant in the chipset only to be awakened remotely when needed.

The technical ‘trick’ here is to allow the mobile carrier to select acceptable limits for the quality of the Wi-Fi service. In this way subscribers are only handed over to a free Wi-Fi network when the quality is acceptable, and can be handed back if the quality drops. The company says that from 15% to 50% of the cellular data traffic can be offloaded to Wi-Fi hotspots using this method. Today, only a couple of percent of the total mobile traffic is offloaded to Wi-Fi at best. And remember also that there are millions of free Wi-Fi hotspots out there so the service footprint could become huge.

Seamlessness means “do-nothing-on-your-phone”

Remember also that all of this happens seamlessly. In all cases not requiring portal-based access, the hookup to the free Wi-Fi service requires no user interaction of any kind. You can just walk into the shop and be on Wi-Fi. This is what is making this and other forms of Wi-Fi offload a huge mass-market opportunity. The other clever approach championed by Devicescape is that the Wi-Fi offload footprint is essentially crowd-sourced. This means that the Wi-Fi footprint expands as the system learns of new, free, high-quality Wi-Fi hotspots, allowing even more users to connect seamlessly to the right service. In the case of portal-based free Wi-Fi, only a single smartphone ‘tap’ is required, says the company.

As more and more cellular operators face the bleak prospect of either having to deploy LTE small cells by the tens of thousands or embrace something that is already there, I strongly believe we will se more of these types of services making inroads into the cellular mainstream.

The new US MVNO Republic Wireless is already poised to disrupt the market using Devicescape’s Wi-Fi solution. We will have to wait and see if they will be successful going up against the established giants of the industry. I suppose that I admit that I’ve quietly got my fingers crossed for both Republic Wireless and Devicescape. We really do need to shake this industry up every so often.

Learn more at Seamless Wi-Fi/3G/LTE offload case study & Excel model, available at 4G-Market.com

/Claus Hetting, senior consultant & analyst

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