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Wi-Fi offload can help mobile operators deliver network neutrality

Network neutrality has come back to the boil in 2014 following US carrier Verizon’s famous Federal court victory in January over the regulator FCC (Federal Communications Commission), allowing it to differentiate between services delivered to its broadband customers. This was followed in April by the European Union approving strict network neutrality with the message it would take a much tougher stance than the FCC in upholding the rules. Naturally this was widely interpreted as setting Europe apart from the US, but the reality is that both are taking a more nuanced approach than in the past. Even the EU proposals allow for provision of specialized services, providing they do not intrude into network capacity set aside for the general Internet. The tones may be different but the broader implication both in the US and Europe is that network neutrality can never be fully attained through legislation, any more than true equality of wealth can be achieved via measures such as progressive taxation – both are aspirations or focal points.

For mobile operators the aspiration of network neutrality has assumed a logistical and economic dimension with the great proliferation of data hitting their infrastructures. Many have opposed strict net neutrality for the simple reason that their core and backhaul networks have limited capacity and would be unable to cope without traffic engineering and the ability to differentiate between different service or application types.

But now Wi-Fi offload has entered to change the game, giving operators an option for relieving their overstretched backhaul networks and for that matter their radio access capacity as well, by taking advantage of broadband infrastructures. It was at the Mobile World Congress in 2013 that offload first seemed to have risen right up the agenda for mobile operators. Generally, particularly before deployment of 4G/LTE, broadband networks had greater capacity and crucially lower costs than the fixed backhaul networks serving radio base stations. For this reason those major Telcos with their own network of hot spots have been leading the march towards Wi-Fi offload. In the US AT&T has built large Wi-Fi hot zones in mostly urban areas with high levels of cellular traffic, specifically for offload to help relieve congestion on its core mobile network.

The implications of such offloading for network neutrality have not attracted much attention, but are likely to be profound nonetheless. The fundamental point is that by freeing up capacity on the mobile network, offloading can help mobile operators meet their net neutrality obligations as laid down by regulators in the region concerned, while still having scope to offer specialized services. An operator could say offer an OTT video service such as Netflix with guaranteed QoS over the cellular network, resorting to Wi-Fi offload for third party OTT services such as YouTube. Alternatively Wi-Fi could be used for specialized services, especially by operators like AT&T that have their own overlapping hot spots and cellular networks on a large scale.

We are already seeing this happen, with Sprint in the US now offering calling and messaging over Wi-Fi when within range of suitable hot spots. Sprint incidentally was one of the first major carriers in the world to make serious use of Wi-Fi offloading for data.

We are going to see plenty more such offerings over the coming years. It will be interesting to see the extent to which operators will align Wi-Fi and cellular within heterogeneous service offerings effectively to escape the shackles of net neutrality while obeying the basic rules as stipulated by regulators.

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LTE Broadcast 2/5: operators get new revenue options

Now that LTE Broadcast is off the ground following the world’s first session on a commercial LTE network transmitted by Australian operator Telstra, attention has naturally turned to potential use cases and revenue generating opportunities. The initial attraction for cellular operators, once they have a sufficiently widespread LTE network in the target region, is the significant bandwidth saving they will get when streaming popular live video, with the consequent ability to optimise capacity and improve service quality for customers, especially in crowded areas. That is a business rather than a specific use case, but at least one major operator is planning to come out with all guns blazing with the latter from day one.

Verizon Wireless has already confirmed it intends to time its 2014 launch of LTE Broadcast in the US to coincide with one of the nation’s iconic sporting events to use the technology for streaming video in the stadium. This event is now widely believed to be SuperBowl, the annual championship of the US National Football League, to be held in New York on Sunday February 2nd 2014. This could be a big day for establishing LTE Broadcast’s most widely touted use case for broadcasting coverage, replays and associated video around sporting or music events where there are large numbers of people concentrated into a venue or arena. Without LTE Broadcast such content has to be unicast, which would cripple a cell and leave many users unable to access the service, while also causing congestion on the associated backhaul networks.

For operators this use case, live event streaming, offers potential both for cost savings by reducing or avoiding need for network expansion and also for generating revenue in various ways, for example subscriptions, pay per view, pay per event, a seasonal pass, or revenue sharing with content partners. Apart from live event streaming, other interesting use cases are on the horizon under five broad categories: real time video streaming across the whole network, news services, broadcast radio, off peak media delivery and cell based advertising. Real time streaming again offers revenue sharing opportunities, most likely with broadcasters or pay TV operators as the mobile part of their TV Everywhere strategies, perhaps combined with Wi-Fi hot spots. Already Verizon Wireless is in talks with US cable operators along these lines. Then for news services, LTE Broadcast has the potential to extend the scope of existing offerings by delivering news and sport as live updates or clips. There is the option of combining these with personalized lower bandwidth unicast services, such as specific stock updates.

These news services could be given away free as part of a premium offering to extract higher subscriptions, or could be advertising driven. The broadcast radio category is also creating some interest as a way of saving unicast capacity while again creating scope for upselling to premium packages and carrying advertising, as well as revenue sharing with providers of content such as music. Then the off peak delivery use case brings a range of opportunities, especially perhaps for tablets as they have greater storage capability, turning them into mobile DVRs (Digital Video Recorders). TV shows, movies, YouTube videos and newspapers could all be drip fed to devices this way, as could software updates. Apart from saving bandwidth this has pay per view opportunities as well as revenue sharing. Finally cell based advertising can be used to deliver ads targeted on the basis of location rather than personal preferences, with live events themselves being an obvious case, but also shopping malls and airports where particular retail outlets or restaurants might want to advertise to mobile users while in that vicinity.

This can be achieved by partitioning LTE Broadcast on a cell by cell basis, so that separate content would be sent to each cell. Most of these use cases are unlikely to be deployed in the immediate future as they will have to wait for widespread availability of devices compatible with LTE Broadcast, which will not be until well into 2015 at least. Meanwhile though some questions are arising, such as how LTE Broadcast will affect Wi-Fi expansion.

There has been interest in Wi-Fi broadcast as well for live events, with Cisco already offering this with its StadiumVision mobile app, which users can download at venues to access event specific broadcast streams over Wi-Fi. This could well compete with LTE Broadcast for live events streaming, but that is another story. Part one in this series is here and part three is here.