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Operators plan massive carrier grade Wi-Fi expansion

Huge pent up appetite for carrier grade Wi-Fi has been confirmed by recent research commissioned by customer experience specialist Amdocs, suggesting that both cable operators and MNOs (Mobile Network Operators) will deploy this at massive scale over the next three years. The research, conducted by Real Wireless and Rethink Technology Research, identifies how operators in both these camps are in turn responding to rapidly growing dissatisfaction among their customers with the Wi-Fi performance and reliability they are getting in public hot spots in particular. The fault does not really lie with Wi-Fi itself, which has actually improved in leaps and bounds, but instead the failure to keep up with escalating expectations. People now expect levels of availability for Internet access that used to be confined to enterprise data networks and Wi-Fi has come into the firing line as the new de facto “last mile” of the broadband access infrastructure.

So as Amdocs pointed out, service providers are seeing that “best-effort” Wi-Fi is becoming less profitable and a guaranteed higher quality of experience (QoE) is needed for emerging revenue generating services such as TV everywhere and online gaming. Yet as we all know Wi-Fi QoS at public places like hotels and trains is all too often poor and inconsistent, too susceptible to data traffic congestion as well as varying spectral conditions.

Carrier Wi-Fi implies guaranteed QoS for specific services such as TV, which in turn depends on traffic management techniques in order to meet varying requirements for bandwidth and latency by giving some IP packets priority whole holding up other packets associated with less urgent applications like email. Above all carrier Wi-Fi requires strong tools for network planning and management to ensure that QoS can be maintained even at peak times. In the Amdocs survey, two thirds of respondents identified lack of such strong tools as one of the top three risk factors that might deter or delay investment in carrier-grade Wi-Fi.

Fortunately such tools are now available from a clutch of vendors that now specialize in carrier Wi-Fi after cutting their teeth in offload to broadband via Wi-Fi from cellular networks. One of them, Aptilo, now emphasizes the importance of integrating Wi-Fi at the service management level with existing backend OSS/BSS operational systems as a foundation for policy enforcement and new revenue generation. Another, Birdstep, has been focusing increasingly on the bigger picture of heterogeneous networks (HetNets) that combine Wi-Fi with cellular with the catch line of “Experience Continuity” to describe the goal of delivering optimum QoS to users wherever they are and whatever device they have.

Of the two operator categories covered by Amdocs in its research, HetNets are of greatest interest to MNOs, but carrier grade Wi-Fi itself is a major goal for many cable operators seeking to give their subscribers access to premium TV content on the road and underpin their quad play offers. The interesting aspect of the research is the suggestion that operators will be clutching carrier Wi-Fi technology almost as soon as it comes out. As a result the prediction is for penetration of carrier-grade Wi-Fi hotspots to increase from 14% at the end of 2014 to 72% by 2018.

This will not be a case of technology leaking gradually out to the market as it comes along, but being pulled hard by consumer demand. Just as high speed broadband Internet access has come to be taken for granted, carrier Wi-Fi will quickly follow.