Traditional cellular operators have been using Wi-Fi as a network offload resource for several years. It’s unlicensed, its performance can be patchy but it’s free. The phenomenon has seen some of the larger global tier one carriers buy up fibre and embrace carrier Wi-Fi technology as a means to stay competitive. A recent Infonetics report predicted the carrier Wi-Fi market will hit $3 billion in 2018. This will be driven by Hotspot 2.0 technology enabling seamless roaming across Wi-Fi networks and between Wi-Fi and cellular networks.
Google comes to play
Google recently announced that it is to roll out its Wi-Fi first service, Project Fi, across the US. The plan is to leverage the abundance of Wi-Fi hotspots across the US and then to fall back to LTE infrastructure owned by Sprint and T-Mobile when broader mobility is required. By using low cost Wi-Fi access points, Google can offer cheaper plans to customers which start at $20 per month and $10 for each 1GB of data used. According to Google, it has the technology to intelligently connect to the fastest available network whether it’s Wi-Fi or one of its partners’ LTE networks. To reinforce this Wi-Fi first approach, it’s going to refund unused mobile data.
Google’s bid to offer Americans at home and abroad the fastest possible service at a low, flat-rate is commendable. However, the success of the project for both Google and its 4G operators will rest on the Quality of Experience (QoE) its networks deliver, in any given scenario.
Wi-Fi as a differentiator
Wi-Fi is being used by Project Fi as a lower cost connectivity service. But the ability to charge consumers for this service, and test an attractive ROI, is based on the fundamental premise that Wi-Fi can deliver a quality of experience that is better, or at least as good as 4G. For Project Fi customers, Wi-Fi access must be seamless – it’s simply got to work, and deliver carrier grade quality.
For Sprint and T-Mobile, this partnership, if successful, could be an important strategic move to differentiate them from their major competitors such as AT&T and Verizon. Increasingly faced with voice and data commoditisation, the benefits of partnering with Google are likely to outweigh the potential negatives. Google is well known for offering cheap services, and would likely be able to override market competition. If operators cannot compete with Google on price, the safer option may be to collaborate on bundled services.
But both Wi-Fi and cellular camps are desperate to be regarded as the most reliable and win the battle for consumer confidence. Done properly, using a combination of Wi-Fi and cellular can deliver the best network experience: this shines the spotlight on the role of policy in delivering an effective network handover.
The battle for consumer confidence
Project Fi is blurring the lines between Wi-Fi and cellular for many customers, by offering seamless authentication and access without any customer intervention. As long as the price is competitive, the quality is good, and the access is instantaneous, customers don’t care about the supporting technology. This expectation that the service will just work, whether based on Wi-Fi or cellular, means the pressure is on for to deliver the quality of experience that customers expect.
While previously, the lure of free Wi-Fi was enough to entice consumers into a branch of Starbucks, they are beginning to differentiate more on speed and quality. The public remains a fickle bunch – if a service is slow as a result of congestion, customers will move on. Google and its operator partners cannot afford to offer Wi-Fi on a wing and a prayer, hoping that the service will cope with usage peaks. They must ensure quality of experience.
In order to deliver the optimum quality of experience on Wi-Fi, service providers need to ensure that the right tools are in place to proactively manage QoE, by setting rules for Wi-Fi offload from cellular and vice versa.
Devices and hotspots enable automatic attachment to operator approved hotspots without the need for manual intervention. An Access Network Discovery and Selection Function (ANDSF) enables prioritization of Wi-Fi networks under dynamic conditions, such as coordinating attachment to one network versus another when bandwidth is better, or network congestion is occurring on one of the networks considered.
An ANDSF also allows the service provider to centrally manage policies which give a great deal of control over which Wi-Fi networks will be selected and under what conditions. These network selection decisions can be based on multiple inputs including customer profile, historical data consumption, tariff plan, device type, time-of-day, location information and a wealth of other network information. ANDSF enables service providers’ policies to be installed on users’ devices and also to change them dynamically as conditions change.
QoE comes first
A combination of Wi-Fi and cellular can deliver the best network experience. Automatic detection of the strongest signal and seamless handover can make up for holes in cellular coverage, such as in-building coverage and in remote locations. It can also provide an effective off-load solution for capacity management.
With Project Fi, both Wi-Fi and cellular sides will be motivated to claim the largest market share possible. While it’s likely that both access technologies will find their place, it’s unlikely to be a 50:50 arrangement in every given scenario. The battle for the customer will continue – but will the QoE be so seamless that the customer won’t even notice?
Martin Morgan is vice president of Marketing at Openet, a Dublin-based telecommunications software company.