Can Wi-Fi offloading finally give the mobile Internet some breathing space?

Offloading some wireless traffic to Wi-Fi networks is finally a concept that wireless carriers are not only considering, but in the case of Sprint, actively deploying. So is the fix for mobile capacity here? Unfortunately, not quite.

Wi-Fi sign
Credit: Howard Lake via Flickr

At last year's Deutsche Bank Media, Internet & Telecom Conference, Boingo Wireless CEO David Hagan pretty much called it about wireless carriers' timeline in adopting Wi-Fi offloading. Wi-Fi offloading refers to the migration of data from the mobile network using complementary network technologies, in this case a Wi-Fi network. The reason would be to smooth out performance -- no more dropped calls! -- and possibly to offer new services, such as Wi-Fi Calling, or VoWiFi.

Speaking at Deutsche Bank's 2014 event, though, Hagan made clear that wireless carriers were not quite seeing the value of Wi-Fi offloading -- at least not yet. Most of the carriers didn't have a real Wi-Fi offload strategy in play, he told the audience according to LightReading. That would probably change within a year.

At the time the reluctance of wireless carriers to use Wi-Fi offloading was not surprising; indeed Hagan's prediction that many would embrace it was probably the more eyebrow-raising prediction. After all, from a wireless carriers' perspective, offloading network traffic to a Wi-Fi network meant offloading that revenue as well.

Fast forward one year, Boingo announced a partnership with Sprint to do exactly that. Hagan, as I said, called it at the Deutsche conference.

This is how it works: When the Sprint customer comes within range of a Boingo Wi-Fi network, the system will automatically connect the customer’s device to the network. Customers with Passpoint-certified mobile devices can offload to a WPA2 enterprise-grade encryption technology network.

Sprint's decision is coming just in time. Analyst after analyst is warning of the growing shift of Internet traffic to wireless networks and the congestion it will cause. Wi-Fi offloading, many have said, is a plausible solution to this looming capacity issue.

Offloading benefits and what's this? Problems too?

One recent report comes from Juniper Networks, which said that Wi-Fi offloading offers several key benefits to industry stakeholders.

However, the research also cautioned that Wi-Fi offloading brings challenges to operators as well, including effective deployment and ROI.

Whaa?

Yes, unfortunately the quick, albeit temporary, fix that Wi-Fi offloading promises for mobile capacity is not being quite as quick as one might have hoped.

Here are a few reasons why:

There are still technical issues for carriers. David Chambers, reporting from the recent Wi-Fi Global Congress 2015, writes that:

Another large Wi-Fi operator warned that the capacity for carrier grade voice service on Wi-Fi is quite limited. While a Carrier grade hotspot can handle anything up to 200 concurrent active users, it’s more like 4 to 10 active voice calls. This is because Wi-Fi is fully backward compatible and uses a 1 millisecond frame rate, making it inefficient to allocate many concurrent low latency streaming connections.

The other "gotcha" is handover between Wi-Fi and the cellular network which isn’t entirely reliable. Other US operators are concerned that calls may be dropped and don’t want to launch it until that’s reliable.

It may not be quite the seamless handoff. The crux of Wi-Fi offloading is that it is done via seamless roaming among Wi-Fi networks and between Wi-Fi and cellular networks -- without requiring additional user sign-on and authentication and without, presumably, the user even being aware that he was on a new network.

But stumbling blocks to this ideal are many. For example, "LTE is coming to the fat 5GHz unlicensed radio band that much of consumers’ Wi-Fi use now depends on," writes Stephen Lawson of IDG News Service.

Equipment makers are aware of this issue, Lawson writes, noting that Eric Parsons, head of mobile broadband LTE at Ericsson, says that its equipment will coexist peacefully with Wi-Fi. Indeed Lawson concludes that LTE may not be as big a problem as many fear.

But the larger point remains. As Tolaga Research analyst Phil Marshall said in Lawson's article, "The handoff between any network boundary is a pain, and it often results in failures due to latency. You don’t want to be doing that if you don’t have to."

Chambers touches on this as well, writing that "…the Wi-Fi industry is more like the Wild West with a huge range of variances and special cases."

Still pushing forward

On the bright side, there are reasons to expect that these challenges will be overcome.

Deployment is spreading, despite the glitches -- and handset manufacturers are getting involved as well. Boingo's Hagan, speaking at the Jefferies TMT 2015 conference, confirmed that Boingo is working with Apple, Microsoft and Google to get Passpoint certified on their handsets, according to FierceWireless.

Once Apple gets certified "that'll launch that 12 million handsets, so lots of operational and engineering work going on right now with the carriers," he said.

All about revenues

Perhaps the biggest reason to look forward to Wi-Fi offloading's eventual success can be found in an IHS report that says carriers are pushing forward with Hotspot 2.0, otherwise known as Wi-Fi Certified Passpoint.

The company's survey on the subject found that one quarter of the respondents expect that by 2016, 26 percent of their access points will be Hotspot 2.0-compliant.

"Revenue generation has become a key driver of carrier Wi-Fi deployments," writes Richard Webb, research director for mobile backhaul and small cells at IHS. "Not only does Hotspot 2.0 support integration of Wi-Fi with mobile and fixed networks, but it supports the creation of new revenue models for Wi-Fi services."

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