We are hearing a lot more about carrier-grade Wi-Fi these days as cable, fixed and mobile operators embrace what they once regarded as a pariah technology.
The advances are driven by the quality provided by 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard technology and the Passpoint/Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) programme, which aims to make the public Wi-Fi experience as seamless and secure as that experienced on cellular networks.
‘The whole carrier-grade market is developing rapidly,’ agrees Ton Brand, senior director marketing and industry development at the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA).
‘Applications such as Wi-Fi calling and location-based services (LBS) need a better-quality service, so to implement that you need a carrier-grade network, or you need to be able to access one via wholesale or roaming arrangements.’
The WBA’s latest annual report entitled From 2016 to 5G, argues that ‘most of the elements
of a carrier platform – security, quality of service, high availability, strong coverage and data rates, integration with operators’ OSS/BSS platforms and their other networks – are now in place’.
The WBA argues that these developments make ‘Wi-Fi a strong platform in a far wider range of business scenarios, and that, in turn, is driving investment, both by traditional players like pure-play and MSO operators, and by new service providers from the over-the-top or IoT communities’.
Brand says that 57% of hotspots will be carrier-grade in the installed base by the end of 2017, with the figure rising to 90% by 2020. Two-thirds of respondents to the MaravedisRethink/WBA annual ecosystem survey said that they felt more confident about deploying carrier-grade Wi-Fi than they had 12 months ago – a figure which is up from 56% in the 2014 study and 43% back in 2012.
Brand points out that Wi-Fi roaming is becoming a smaller use case, relatively speaking, although it is still growing as the pie is getting bigger. Instead, there is more emphasis on Wi-Fi First, Wi-Fi Calling and TV/video. ‘What we are seeing is more monetisation strategies evolving, such as location-based services, roaming and Wi-Fi analytics.’
For the operators, the main business driver behind investing in Wi-Fi is improving the customer experience to reduce churn, boost ARPU and fight off the OTT providers. But it also provides the opportunity to generate new revenue streams. ‘Cable companies are putting more emphasis on TV everywhere and video streaming, for example, as they and other operators focus on quad play strategies,’ says Brand.
The WBA survey reveals that 80% of respondents have deployments or plans (between
now and 2020) in the area of IoT/M2M, and more than half of respondents already have plans for converged services (56%) or smart cities (53%).
Brand says: ‘We are seeing the evolution of smart cities, but the business model is still not clear for a lot of cities. They are still trying to work out what a long-term investment model looks like. More and more cities are starting to understand that deploying citywide Wi-Fi and focusing on just using it for inhabitants is not going to work.’
The WBA published its White Paper on Smart Cities in November. ‘The terminology we use is the connected city,’ continues Brand, ‘without that you will not have a smart city. But it won’t all be Wi-Fi; it will be a mix of Wi-Fi, low power wide area networks and cellular.’
He adds: ‘If you just provide connectivity as the underlying business case you will struggle to monetise. It is the same for national networks in emerging markets, where there needs to be a lot of work on the vendor side to develop low-cost solutions that are carrier grade, but not as expensive as the options cellular operators provide today.’
The WBA’s current work areas include Next Generation Hotspot trials, and looking at SDN/NVF in Wi-Fi, and it will have a White Paper out shortly on Wi-Fi and Small Cells.
Looking ahead to 2020, WBA chairman JR Wilson has identified three strategic priorities: accelerate next-generation Wi-Fi adoption; diversify to reflect the new market opportunities for Wi-Fi, such as IoT, big data, converged services, smart cities, 5G and so on; and increase the organisational significance and capacity of the WBA to enable it to drive its strategic vision.