Interest in carrier Wi-Fi is growing in parallel with the number of Wi-Fi-enabled devices, which is estimated to hit 2 billion by 2015. Wi-Fi is also a topic that raises many questions. Where does it fit in the ecosystem, and what’s the best strategy to exploit its strengths and weaknesses?
Wi-Fi has had an interesting history. In the early days it was regarded as a consumer technology with little to offer cellular mobile services, but the industry now sees Wi-Fi as essential for delivering mobile broadband. The turning point came with the almost ubiquitous inclusion of Wi-Fi capability in smart devices, and the development of tools and techniques for seamless authentication and handover.
So now Wi-Fi has become a cost-effective way to build mobile broadband capacity to complement macro-cellular networks. Whether through the deployment of a new network, or by partnering with an established Wi-Fi service provider, operators can use the technology to significantly enhance coverage and capacity, especially indoors.
Furthermore, Wi-Fi is a constantly developing technology. Initiatives such as HotSpot 2.0 by the Wi-Fi Alliance, and Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) by the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), will further enhance interoperability between Wi-Fi and cellular networks with the goal of seamless worldwide roaming.
There is a concern over Wi-Fi’s use of unlicensed spectrum, however, which makes it difficult to control the quality of experience for subscribers. Interference can damage data transfer rates, with as much as half of all data in the 2.4GHz band being retransmitted packets in congested areas. But this is generally only in extreme cases, and the 5.4GHz and 5.8GHz bands continue to offer large bandwidths of relatively uncluttered spectrum.
Suitable sites are in short supply, and the operator who gets there first will have an overwhelming advantage. Crucially, these sites are not just valuable for Wi-Fi deployments: the investment can be further exploited for LTE small cells in the future.
According to Signals Ahead: “There is a race to grab hotspot real estate by many operators to increase their footprint. Part of this land grab has also included increased deployments of managed (indoor and outdoor) Wi-Fi networks by operators, especially in Asia-Pacific and Europe.”
For operators to win in this market, Nokia Siemens Networks advocates a simple three-step process:
1. Establish a Wi-Fi presence:
Whatever the operator’s specific strategy, the business case for Wi-Fi is hard to ignore. Operators need access to Wi-Fi infrastructure as soon as possible, either by deploying a new Wi-Fi network, or establishing a partnership with an existing Wi-Fi operator.
2. Integrate Wi-Fi and cellular networks:
A seamless connection over different access technologies is crucial for a good customer experience with mobile broadband. This means that Wi-Fi needs to be just as easy, secure, and convenient as any other radio access technology.
3. Upgrade Wi-Fi access points to LTE:
The third stage of the strategy is to leverage investments by upgrading Wi-Fi access points to multi-technology Wi-Fi/3G/LTE capability. This is an extremely cost-effective way to build 4G capacity and coverage because the installed Wi-Fi sites will be located in high-density traffic areas and already have in place the required power and backhaul connectivity, as well as working landlord agreements.
To sum up: Wi-Fi is a valuable opportunity for operators to complement the user experience of 3GPP and 3GPP2 mobile broadband networks. Early movers will gain the best competitive positioning, so there is every reason to act now.
With our strong global partnerships with Wi-Fi infrastructure providers and deep understanding of the subtleties of Wi-Fi topology choices, we are an ideal partner to help operators move forward with their Wi-Fi strategies. Our Smart WLAN Connectivity Solution supported by expert services for core network integration enables seamless connection across access technologies. We also offer the industry’s most comprehensive small cell portfolio, including enhanced microcell and picocell products, advanced Femto access points and the Nokia Siemens Networks Flexi Zone.To date more than 20 mobile operators are using our Wi-Fi offering, including Smart WLAN Connectivity, in commercial operation or trials.
What is your view of the future of carrier Wi-Fi? Where do you see the opportunities and the challenges?
To read more about how operators can take advantage of the convergence of Wi-Fi and 3GPP, see our white paper on nsn.com.
This post is by Ben Ansell from our Mobile Broadband Marketing Team.
 ABI Research, March 2011
“Cellular and Wi-Fi: A Match Made in Heaven?”, Signals Ahead, March 2012