Amenity Wi-Fi and Small Cells: Competition or complementary?

Wi-Fi LogoTwo industry hot topics at the moment are Enterprise Small Cells and Carrier Wi-Fi Hotspot 2.0. Both primarily address in-building non-residential wireless service, reducing the pressure on congested outdoor macrocells while improving the voice and data quality.

But these aren't the only game in town. There are a number of different ways in which our smartphones log on to wireless networks and these will continue to thrive. We look at the different levels of Wi-Fi access methods and discuss one set of real world statistics comparing two different cities.

 

Cellular data access is the easiest to use

Undoubtedly the simplest and easiest for end users to understand, 3G and 4G data service is available in most places anytime a smartphone is switched on. There are no additional passwords apart from the PIN code to unlock your device. It even works when roaming abroad if you have opted for that service.

A surprising number of users are content to have cellular data access only and have never turned on/enabled Wi-Fi, even at home. Evidence for this comes from analysis of data collected by Devicescape which indicates there are three clear categories of user behaviour, each attracting roughly a third of the user base:

  1. Those who never turn on Wi-Fi, typically the less technically savvy users
  2. Those who actively manage Wi-Fi, frequently turning on/off and sometimes overlooking its use/forgetting to turn it on when it might be worthwhile
  3. Those who permanently have Wi-Fi enabled

The ratios between these three categories vary considerably between countries.

Carrier Wi-Fi – A higher quality data service

Telecom operators of all types – fixed, mobile and cable – have actively built out high quality Wi-Fi service in public areas. These use sophisticated high capacity Wi-Fi access points from vendors such as Cisco, Ruckus and Aruba together with high bandwidth internet to deliver a high quality service.

The industry is trying to differentiate between this high quality "Carrier Grade" Wi-Fi experience from some of the less reliable, often overloaded "free Wi-Fi" services. I'm sure we've all found times where there are a number of different Wi-Fi hotspots in range, but few are accessible and even fewer provide an adequate connection.

At the moment, many of these Carrier Wi-Fi services are free to use – often they come as part of your mobile or wireline or cable subscription. The business case is justified by various factors ranging from landgrab of the sites (which could later be upgraded to a full Small Cell), a lower cost method of releasing capacity from the more expensive macrocells and/or usage charges.

I would expect the new Hotspot 2.0 standard to be widely adopted for Carrier Wi-Fi. This can use the EAP-SIM protocol to register and authenticate smartphones on the network using the SIM card without any need to enter data or passwords. The user experience is similar to connecting to a roaming cellular network. Most of the latest smartphones (iPhone, Android etc.) already support this in their latest software updates as do most carrier grade Wi-Fi access points.

The pace of takeup is more a question of how quickly commercial agreements can be setup and putting the inter-networking business processes in place.

Amenity Wi-Fi – An open or closed case?

Many property owners want to offer good wireless data connectivity to their customers. Some provide this for free, just like heating/aircon, décor and clean toilets, Others see it as a revenue opportunity, charging guests and delegates additional fees on top of the room rates. These intentionally shared access points and networks are termed Amenity Wi-Fi, distinguishing it from residential, office or carrier services.

David Nowicki, CMO of Devicescape, says Amenity Wi-Fi is on the increase worldwide, driven by consumer demand for connectivity on the go.

"Businesses of all shapes and sizes are transforming themselves into Wi-Fi hotspots. Wi-Fi has become essential for businesses to attract customers and market services in-store.

"Amenity Wi-Fi falls into a number of categories – from entirely open and requiring no action from the user to completely locked down by a password that is only individually shared with trusted users. Increasingly, making Wi-Fi easily available is becoming the preferred model for businesses and other organisations.

"In London, for example, Oxford Street is full of venues offering different kinds of Wi-Fi access. Topshop's flagship store on Oxford St provides customers with free Wi-Fi as do retailers John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, Nike and UniQlo. But this model isn't restricted to retailers Barclays Bank has announced the rollout of Wi-Fi hotspots across 1,500 UK branches."

Venue owners are looking for wider commercial benefits rather than making money from selling a Wi-Fi service. They want it to be free to access, with minimum hassle, security threats or complaints but maximum ease of use and adequate performance.

Six categories of access for Amenity Wi-Fi

Devicescape recently published a comparison of Amenity Wi-Fi in San Franciso and New York. This is based on data gathered from tens of millions of connections made in each city every month.

They identified six different categories by access type:

  • Shared Open: No password, it just works. Provides the happiest customers and simplest user experience, although may potentially be open to abuse.
  • Shared Open Portal: A splash screen is shown, typically requiring acceptance of terms and conditions. This helps reinforce branding for the venue providing free access, and quick links to their services.
  • Shared Open Password: A splash screen is shown, requiring a password to login. Facebook, twitter or other identity may be used. Often the password is widely displayed within the premises but has to be found.
  • Shared Open Account: A customer account with a Wireless Internet Service Provider (WiSP) or roaming partner is needed. This can be a cable, fixed or mobile service provider offering Wi-Fi access when away from home or business.
  • Shared Locked: Private Wi-Fi network intended for use by venue staff only.
  • Non-Functional: Either faulty (e.g. no backhaul internet connection), misconfigured or restricted.

Where access requires some user interaction, whether simply accepting conditions or entering a password, this can sometimes be required every time your device wakes up from sleep mode. Other systems are smarter and will remember your MAC address, granting access anywhere in the building and/or elsewhere without subsequent intervention.

Overall in the case study, San Francisco came out tops, with amenity Wi-Fi more widely available. Even better, fewer required any passwords. There definitely seems to be a trend to provide more open and unlocked access than before, especially amongst the larger retail chains.

Open access is very attractive for end users, making it much easier to connect and consume service. The drawback can be that the quality of service varies a lot.

Conclusion

I anticipate that additional methods which simplify the Wi-Fi network selection/login process and guarantee a good service before connecting to Wi-Fi will be popular. Several vendors offer proprietary solutions today.

I would foresee a trend towards four types of access based on business approach of the venue owners:

  1. Venues who want to offer freely accessible Wi-Fi service will simply unlock and open up access without passwords. Some traffic monitoring and bandwidth throttling may be used to mitigate abuse. Service quality may vary widely.
  2. Venues whose who want to charge directly for Wi-Fi access. I expect this will be a reducing trend, with more pressure put on luxury hotels and conference centres in particular to include this in their room hire rates.
  3. Venues who want to capture personal data from users by using Facebook and/or other social media login methods. I think this will work against some customer segments, especially for business, but recognise that younger people are more comfortable with sharing data on this basis.
  4. Venues offering Carrier Grade Wi-Fi who may use HotSpot 2.0 to authenticate and grant access to their Wi-Fi services without wanting to charge or capture end user data.

This last category may place higher signalling traffic demands for EAP-SIM authentication on the mobile networks, who would effectively be offering an identity authentication service for free. Doing so should allow them to compete for this service with Facebook and others, and extend the reach of their customer service at minimal cost. It may even save money by encouraging greater use of Wi-Fi rather than the cellular network, offloading traffic and reducing congestion.

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