The race toward 4G is heating up. The need for improved mobile broadband services, changing revenue models, and accelerating competitive pressure are driving operators to introduce Long-Term Evolution (LTE) faster than originally predicted, although 3G and 4G/LTE networks will coexist for many years to come.
Even so, it’s clear that mobile data usage will outstrip even the capacity of new LTE networks. With analyst consensus predicting a spectrum shortage of up to 80% versus demand over the next five years, mobile broadband carriers are scrambling to add backhaul and optimization technologies to their infrastructure mix.
According to Juniper Research,1 63% of traffic from smart phones, tablets, and feature phones will be offloaded onto the fixed network via Wi-Fi and femtocells by 2015. That’s about 9000 petabytes, or 11 billion movie downloads. More than 60% of traffic is generated by streaming mobile video and general Web browsing. These applications provide little additional revenue for operators, who are consequently looking for technology solutions to support changes to their business model
Once the ugly stepchild of the operator world, Wi-Fi is already accepted as the premium offload strategy for operators worldwide, and small cells will augment it as its use grows. However, the Wi-Fi experience is still problematic for operators.
Operators need Wi-Fi roaming to deliver a similar quality of experience to cellular roaming, but seamless access, automatic authentication, and the ability to deliver operator services are missing. The industry is mobilizing to find solutions—some are already available today—to offer operators a potential means of staying connected to and monetizing their subscriber base even when they roam outside their cellular networks.
Three Phases Of Wi-Fi
The transition to integrated Wi-Fi services can be divided into three distinct phases. Initially, since 2010, operators have been leveraging Wi-Fi as a brute force capacity mechanism, which leaves users offloaded from their home network and unconnected with their service providers.
In the second phase, operators have been driving the industry for solutions that allow them to optimize and secure the experience to retain subscribers and revenues. The third phase calls for seamless interworking, policy management, and session continuity, rendering the Wi-Fi experience transparent to users and leveraging Wi-Fi as a complementary radio access alongside 3G and 4G.
The Wi-Fi Alliance recognized some of the initial requirements in the recent introduction of its Wi-Fi Certified Passpoint specification, which defines standards for developing devices and infrastructure addressing auto-login and user identity, plus network selection and roaming. With operator needs and user expectations evolving at an accelerated pace, some standards still trail market requirements.
Operators are already looking to vendors and standards bodies to enable the ultimate phase of Wi-Fi, where it becomes a true extension of their networks, and they can deliver truly integrated services incorporating session roaming, policy management, and a sustained quality of experience for the subscriber.
The industry also is lagging behind operator needs for integrated services. Almost none of the available Wi-Fi integration solutions address their two key imperatives: providing premium subscribers with consistent, easy, high-speed access across multiple devices and networks and to giving users the same level of security and seamless transition to and from Wi-Fi as on 3G or 4G.
Control + User Visibility = Revenue
Future incremental revenue opportunities for network operators typically fall within the categories of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), operator-branded or premium streaming video (rather than just You Tube), and other paid applications, which account for only 10% to 20% of traffic volume. Service providers need to provide their premium subscribers with a consistent, high-quality experience when they’re roaming on Wi-Fi networks.
The Certified Passpoint specification is indicative of an industry currently driving toward delivering carrier-class Wi-Fi technology. Standards organizations typically lag behind market developments. In this instance, the Wi-Fi Alliance has fast-tracked the introduction of Passpoint. However, operator requirements have evolved. Also, solutions already exist to deliver on next-stage priorities, primarily intelligent traffic steering and seamless Wi-Fi connectivity for roaming users.
As an example, Stoke has already brought interworking, security, and traffic steering solutions to the market via its Stoke Wi-Fi eXchange gateway. The Wi-Fi eXchange platform leverages and expands the strengths of the Passport specifications, which include the Extensible Authentication Protocol (EAP SIM) as an integral part of Passpoint-certified offerings.
Wi-Fi eXchange also includes a clientless interworking option that allows operators to remove all client dependencies from the mobile device, while maintaining crucial standard interfaces with the legacy mobile core network and leveraging the essential functionality defined by 3GPP wireless local-area network (WLAN) Interworking specifications.
Clientless interworking utilizes mechanisms to allow access to all mobile services while roaming on a Wi-Fi network. It also permits mobile operators to provide a consistent quality of experience to their customers, enabling key features such as security, user identity, authentication, and traffic steering.
Solutions like clientless interworking demonstrate how fixed and mobile operators can move forward with delivering new Wi-Fi services without requiring incremental clients to be loaded on mobile devices or refreshing infrastructure to Passport specifications to keep pace with innovation in the mobile broadband market.
- Juniper Research, “Mobile Data Offload & Onload”, April 2011.