Just ahead of this year’s Mobile World Congress, Devicescape decided to stir up the market a little by issuing its Connectivity First Manifesto (see story here). The manifesto calls on operators to ditch the silo mentality when it comes to bearers and just provide subscribers with the best connectivity option, be it Wi-Fi or cellular, depending on what their needs are at any one time.
Dave Fraser, CEO, Devicescape (pictured above), tells Wireless: ‘We talked to a lot of operators and felt some were missing the point about their business, or what their subscribers expected their business to be about,’ he explains.
‘Subscribers just expect a great service and they don’t care how that service is delivered. We bring Wi-Fi into the operator domain and make it work harmoniously with the rest of their offering. But we are still surprised that many operators, with a few exceptions, still think of Wi-Fi as separate to what they do.
‘We lamented this point of view,’ he continues, ‘as we think they should be connectivity orientated, not just cellular. We decided to write an open manifesto to the industry saying: “stop thinking of it in terms of just cellular or just Wi-Fi”.’
Traction with operators
That said (and done) Fraser reports that the company is seeing more traction now for its point of view. ‘We have eight trials in Europe alone with major operators, so the market is changing and we believe it is about to approach mainstream delivery. We think what we are saying will be boringly obvious to everyone eventually.’
He notes with some amusement that there has been a ‘Wi-Fi first’ push in parts of the industry. ‘We had to laugh,’ he says. ‘Sure it is a valid use case, but it’s like the polar opposite. The point is it doesn’t matter whether it's Wi-Fi or cellular; connectivity first is what it should be all about.’
He agrees the push by the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) to introduce Hotspot 2.0 (which makes it much easier to roam between Wi-Fi and cellular) is a big step forward, but says there are still issues.
‘Firstly, there are hardly any carrier-deployed Wi-Fi networks, as they are very expensive and time consuming to build out. Some carriers will do it and the likes of Ericsson and Ruckus Wireless will supply the hardware. But more likely carriers will target high traffic locations first.’
Relationship with WBA’s Hotspot 2.0
Fraser argues that a problem with Hotspot 2.0 is that it is very network centric. ‘You can deploy the best Hotspot 2.0 system, but still have a terrible experience because the network is congested or there are walls between your device and the cell.
‘There are another couple of other limitations here too,’ he continues. ‘One concerns having a device-centric overlay where the operator sees what the user is experiencing, rather than just what the network is doing. That way they can also monitor the quality of the experience of the handset. Hotspot 2.0 doesn’t do that yet, but we do.’
The other thing, and perhaps the crucial point, is that the bulk of the Wi-Fi asset out there is not owned by the carriers. In fact, as Fraser points out, it is completely distributed. ‘99% of Wi-Fi out there is owned by a mass of small operators; hoteliers, hospitals, retailers, enterprises and the like. But what we do is bring all that together to form an aggregated virtual Wi-Fi network.’
The latest WBA Report acknowledges that it expects carrier Wi-Fi to grow, but that by the far the largest amount of Wi-Fi at the moment is this mass of smaller ones networks.
‘The likes of Boingo and iPath have done a small number of deals with larger Wi-Fi networks. What we offer at Devicescape is to extend that approach to the long tail by aggregating the small networks. Of the more than 20 million locations we already have, three quarters of them comprise less than five hotspots in the network!’ says Fraser.
Harnessing the amenity Wi-Fi asset
He believes that others will join Devicescape in its approach. He argues that all these small Wi-Fi networks are too big an asset to ignore and that what Devicescape does is very complementary to the Hotspot 2.0 strategy, adding that there are rumours that many cable companies will do the same thing.
‘We think we’ll see technology like Devicescape’s, bring this mass of Wi-Fi access points to bear. We will probably also see the networks move into the standards bodies and make this thing available,’ says Fraser.
‘We have the ex-CEO of Vodafone on the Devicescape board and we ask him why aren’t MNOs moving faster to integrate Wi-Fi into their offering? He says that the operator world is only now warming up to Wi-Fi in various different stages. When we go in to see them, we say: not only is this not our network, it is not a real network - it is a virtualised one.’
Fraser reckons we are at a major inflection point of in the industry. So far, Devicescape has primarily sold its curated virtual Wi-Fi network concept to small operators, but it thinks major operators are now interested too. ‘By MWC 2016 major operators in Europe and USA will say this is too much to ignore,’ predicts Fraser.
‘Our strategy is to try and find operators with a pressing need, or to identify the more innovative ones,’ he explains. ‘Virgin Media in the UK was our first European customer. Our UK network is up from 20,000 to 220,000 in one year as a result of us having a customer in the UK.’
Jumpstarting the market
While the Virgin deal has helped, Fraser believes to really jump start the market you need a Tier 1 operator to lead and deploy the aggregated amenity Wi-Fi idea. He is hoping the current trials with eight major European operators will get the ball rolling and have a big impact on the market.
However, he notes that there are some unusual economic benefits to using the Devicescape virtual network. ‘The US mobile market is very different to Europe, as it has this duopally of AT&T and Verizon, which means there is very little price competition – that is only just starting to heat up with Sprint and T-Mobile putting pressure on them,’ says Fraser.
‘Those leading US operators have been doing well with good ARPU growth and their cellular networks have adequate capacity. They are really raking it in, so in that environment they want to keep traffic on their cellular network. The reason they want our product is to provide coverage continuity.’
Fraser elaborates: ‘If you walk into big shopping mall or a high rise building you get degraded services and have to fall back to 3G or 2G. What Devicescape introduces with our Coverage Continuity offering launched at MWC 2015 (see story here) is that the mobile device only uses the Wi-Fi network when the 4G one fails. That way the operator keeps the user on 4G until the service degrades to a certain set point; only then do they move to Wi-Fi and vice versa, so you are not cut off inside the store.
‘You can also get analytics when those transitions happen. In the past operator have been able to see where the service degraded, but we can give enhanced visibility and that helps prioritise network spend,’ says Fraser.
He concludes: ‘We think that the configuration of our service, driven by policy, will be useful to operators that have capacity and don’t have cost issues. These operators are proud of the network they have built and want it used most of the time, but Wi-Fi as a fall back is a more a palatable way of looking at it for them.’
Devicescape launches coverage continuity solution for MNOs
Devicescape highlights industry shift with Connectivity First Manifesto