This conference focused on Carrier Wi-Fi, and specifically roaming and interoperation between network operators. It's overseen by the Wi-Fi Broadband Alliance (WBA), with Avren/Clarion running the event. Don't confuse the WBA (with 100+ members) who focus on Wi-Fi roaming with the Wi-Fi Alliance (with 500+ members) who concentrate on Wi-Fi equipment standards and certification.
Attendance has almost doubled to 460 this year, showing rapid growth in this sector. As Richard Webb of Infonetics commented during his introduction, Wi-Fi used to be discounted by mobile operators (or worse) but is now very much a part of mobile network operator strategy. A variety of service providers attended including both mobile networks, fixed networks, cable and wireless.
What's this got to do with Small Cells? The previous week's Small Cell conference reinforced the intent of many (most) mobile network operators to incorporate Carrier Wi-Fi capability into 3G and/or LTE small cells. This week's conference was a good checkpoint to compare how far Carrier Wi-Fi has developed and how close we are to the seamless integrated quality cellular/Wi-Fi experience that operators are striving to achieve for a sensible cost.
What's new with Carrier Wi-Fi?
The WBA has established standards that make it easy for any Wi-Fi network operator to accept roaming users from other Wi-Fi and/or mobile networks. Bill Hague, EVP at AT&T leading their Wi-Fi roaming business, predicted huge growth in the number of Wi-Fi roaming agreements this will generate - they already have over 600 and are actively seeking many more. He predicts they might reach 50-100 per country. The rules, procedures and data exchanged are all closely aligned with the proven GSM roaming systems.
HotSpot 2.0, a new Wi-Fi standard, allows any Wi-Fi device (smartphone, tablet etc.) to easily discover which Wi-Fi hotspots it might get service from, select and connect using their home account. This should see those annoying login screens disappear and the system just become automatic.
So far, 67 companies have registered for Next Generation Hotspot trials which use HotSpot 2.0, and there are over 30 devices available to use it. Delegates were excited by Apple's recent announcement to support it in their iOS7 release – Samsung was the first to offer it in their Galaxy S4 and will provide firmware for some earlier smartphones (S2/S3) – meaning that the vast majority of new and recent smartphones could be able to use it before the end of the year.
In one panel session, several operators commented that the technology was now in place but expressed frustration that the roaming and settlement process is holding things back – something the WBA needs to help drive forward.
Wi-Fi is fast and about to get a whole lot faster
The speed/performance of carrier class Wi-Fi is really very good now. In the conference room, 7 Cisco access points run by BT provided me with 24Mbps downlink and 36Mbps uplink (9 ms ping time) on my iPhone 5. These access points are connected by IP back to BT's datacentre where a server monitors and reconfigures them about every 10 minutes by sending commands – what we in Cellular would call SON (Self Optimising Networks).
802.11ac, the latest Wi-Fi specification, was demonstrated. There are already two commercial smartphones which support it, and peak throughput rates are phenomenal – easily 270Mbps or more. This new spec can cope with more attached devices, has a power saving mode and other useful features. I've already seen one small cell product with this capability (from Askey).
This speed is achieved at the expense of stripping out a lot of the complexity of a full cellular network. Don't expect handoff to work and data rates could drop off rapidly when moving around but it works very well when stationary and close to the access point.
So what is Carrier Wi-Fi anyway?
I asked the question whether Carrier Grade Wi-Fi needs to use those up-market Wi-Fi access points (e.g. from Cisco, Ruckus Wireless, Aruba etc.) or can it be offered through just about any old consumer grade Wi-Fi access point. From several answers, I concluded that if it works OK, then just about any Wi-Fi Access Point will do. In a congested venue/urban environment, the more sophisticated access points are essential, but in a controlled home/office then a cheaper one can work well and may be limited by backhaul. The important piece is measuring the quality of experience and reverting back to cellular if it's not good enough. Consumers are buying the user experience - the connectivity - not the technology. QoS measurement isn't part of the HotSpot 2.0 spec today, but there are some proprietary solutions.
I imagine most (if not all) of the Service Provider Wi-Fi access points will be upgraded to HotSpot 2.0, but this won't stretch to older consumer models. Legacy mode will continue to be available simultaneously with HotSpot 2.0 on the same devices for quite some time.
The business models for Service Provider Wi-Fi
A major challenge today is that for many people Wi-Fi = Free. It's hard to charge for it, and yet venues (hotels etc.) are expected to offer it. Andy Baker, who runs BT Wi-Fi, highlighted the five tenets of the Service Provider Wi-Fi business case:
- Free access to UK and overseas hotspots. This results in more new customers for their BT Broadband fixed network service, which bundles the free access package.
- Paid For: Casual customer access using vouchers and subscriptions.
- Monetisation: Add Google search bar, sponsored content etc.
- Offload and Sharing: Wholesale for multiple mobile operators
- Partners: Venue owners including hotels, shops, property companies etc.
Partho Mishra, Cisco, wants to see some "Darwinian Experimentation" in the area of Wi-Fi business innovation. Yesterday, Wi-Fi was about productivity, optional availability, complicated connection management and a limited user experience. Today, it's more about revenue enablement, and has become pervasive, seamless, contextual and personalised. He gave some examples of just how much a mobile ad can be worth if presented in the right place at the right time – rates for mobile ads today are very similar to desktop, about $10 per 1000 impressions. This can rise to $85 in European public venues and as much as $350 in a Dubai shopping mall (next the jewellery stores).
Removing those annoying login screens
HotSpot 2.0 and Next Generation Hotspot means that the logon page/splash screen will go, replaced by transparent and fast access. They can't go away fast enough in my opinion.
Many seamless logon services already exist here in the UK:
- Virgin in London Underground, login once, thereafter your MAC address is enough. Average time is only about 28 seconds before you get onto the train, so it has to be quick to login and sync your device with email etc.
- Operators such as O2 and BT Wi-Fi have an App as do aggregators such as The Cloud, Boingo, iPass and many others. These seamlessly log you in but are not faultless.
- Skype Connected is becoming popular, not only for making Skype calls but simply as a means to connect easily to Wi-Fi when travelling. Some venue owners are specifically asking for it, perceiving added brand value.
So I was a little surprised to see several vendors talk about monetising the login page, offering coupons for the store you've entered etc. These systems can be cloud based (Cloud4Wi) or a client installed on the router (Purple Wi-Fi) or in the core network (Cisco). Various options include an automated login process once their system knows you. Some schemes ask to login through Facebook, which provides enormous range of personal details and for me at least, privacy concerns.
Simone Arena from Cisco explained they thought that letting people connect quickly/easily first and then discretely marketing to them should work best. Cisco's solution can intercept the HTML pages and display a small pop-up button or banner that links to context specific pages. I've recorded a video of his demo showing two features: tracking Wi-Fi users walking through a mall (regardless of whether connected or not) and the discrete banner ads when browsing. He reckons around 40% of smartphones today typically have Wi-Fi switched on.
Could connection managers become the new battleground?
I asked this question of several speakers. In mobile phones today, the SIM card is the arbitrator of which mobile network is selected. In a Wi-Fi environment, a connection manager running on the device will decide. I believe there can only be one, and it's fairly likely to be your mobile operator but by no means certain.
Immediately prior to the event, we heard that Apple will support HotSpot 2.0 in their next iOS7 release. Combined with Android/Samsung, this means most smartphones could be upgraded to have this capability within a few months. Many HotSpots could also be equipped to handle the protocol (The Cloud said about 90% of theirs already were or were capable of it). Whether the mobile network operators are ready with their own connection managers to handle this is debatable – and if they don't, it could leave the opportunity open for others to step in and own that space. The next six months could be interesting.
DeviceScape and BandwidthX innovate with radical solutions
Two new approaches to achieving a better Wi-Fi experience when on the go were on show, depending on whether you want to pay for Wi-Fi or not:
- BandwidthX introduced one of the most audacious and sophisticated solutions, launched at the event after years of development and testing. Their App (which could be incorporate into a network operator's) identifies which Wi-Fi access point to connect with, then (a) measures the signal strength, (b) checks whether able to connect to the Internet and (c) runs a speed test (or measures the speed of your own traffic/video/download). It's this quality monitoring which I thought was a step ahead of HotSpot 2.0 standards. But their CEO Pertti Visuri told me their key selling point is an online marketplace, where Wi-Fi network owners can auction off capacity in particular locations and/or times which is really unique. It's been done for international voice minutes on landlines for years, but I've not heard of it for cellular voice roaming and far less for data roaming before. Their cloud based servers can direct the app client on each smartphone towards the Wi-Fi they should connect with and even download the login keys on-demand. This sits on top of any HotSpot 2.0 system but doesn't require it.
- DeviceScape has curated a database of free Wi-Fi hotspots (including passwords) and quality of service they offer. Their App makes it easy to connect to millions of hotspots and measures the QoS in real-time. For example, it may not make sense to force everybody onto Wi-Fi at a busy Starbucks and their system would move customers back to 3G or LTE if congested. David Nowicki, their CMO, emphasised the sheer numbers of Wi-Fi access points available in a busy downtown areas including many venues where owners would be happy for visitors to easily access their service.
So what about combined Small Cells with Wi-Fi?
Joe Madden, Mobile Experts, compared the numbers of small cells vs Wi-Fi hotspots that would be required to cover an indoor mall. The choice was between a large number of short-range/high capacity Wi-Fi access points vs slightly fewer long range/lower capacity cellular small cells. He postulated that dual-mode cellular/Wi-Fi small cells delivered both capacity and coverage with the minimum number of units, and would be the most cost effective solution.
It seems to me that the technical integration of cellular and Wi-Fi into a small cell seems to be less about a completely integrated 3rd RAN. The Wi-Fi and cellular networks currently work quite independently, so it's more about co-locating equipment to reduce the number of sites, consolidate backhaul and minimise total cost of operation.
Steve Hratko, Director of Carrier Marketing at Ruckus Wireless, reinforced what others have said elsewhere. Public Wi-Fi service is all about site ownership – if operators can acquire the rights to potential hotspot locations using the carrot of free Wi-Fi (or one of the other Wi-Fi business cases), they are then in an excellent position to upgrade later to full cellular 3G/LTE small cells. This can be indoors (typified by Cisco's Wi-Fi + Ubiquisys small cell module) or outdoor (as evidenced by Telefonica O2's free Wi-Fi in London using Alcatel-Lucent/Ruckus kit). He thought the opportunity for Small Cell Hosting by third parties could be quite attractive, especially in countries where RAN sharing is already at an advanced stage.
- Picocela, a Japanese firm, touted their mesh Wi-Fi backhaul solution which claims up to 60% efficiency savings.
- RANPlan re-launched their iBuild radio planning tool at the event, demonstrating its scope covers both Wi-Fi and cellular, indoor and out.
- Gavin Franks, CEO of O2 Wi-Fi, said we must change the language. It's no longer minutes of Wi-Fi use. Activity depends on location between snacking and longer sessions – they are seeing longer use patterns including watching video and uploads to foreign social networks.
- Richard Webb, Infonetics, forecasts triple digit growth in Carrier Wi-Fi equipment sales largely driven by 802.11ac, reaching $3.9Billion by end 2017. Joe Madden (Mobile Experts) forecasts $4 Billion by 2018 including related/ancilliary equipment.
- HotSpot 2.0 can't be used onboard aircraft. Apparently you have to manually login – automated login is banned by law.
- Miracast is another significant Wi-Fi Alliance standard to watch. Easily mirrors content from smartphone or tablet onto a large screen. 1,000 products already support it and likely that all smartphones will support it in near term. (Imagine being able to run your next customer presentation from your smartphone!)
- Future roadmap for Wi-Fi features includes 802.11v (extended network power save, ideal for M2M), 802.11k (operations and resource management), and further work on high accuracy/low latency indoor location reporting.
- The WBA have made good progress towards a straightforward roaming between Wi-Fi and cellular operators, with seamless authentication and settlement.
- HotSpot 2.0 could be here faster than we expected, with many smartphones and access points in place before the end of 2013.
- Measuring quality of service/experience of Wi-Fi is critical to the end user experience. There are now several proprietary vendor solutions that appear to do this.
- The business case for Service Provider Wi-Fi is more complex than for cellular data. Some of these innovative solutions may prove worthwhile for both camps.
- Site acquisition will be critical for both Wi-Fi and cellular small cells. The time for landgrab is now. Third party companies may be able to move quicker than the Cellcos.