Wi-Fi: An Extension and Alternative to Cellular Networks

Wi-fi is growing up – and fast. It’s going from the lost cost / free, only use it because data roaming is so expensive, slow and unreliable younger sibling of cellular to a real extension to 4G networks. The flip side of this is that new entrants in the mobile space are using Wi-Fi as a lower cost alternative to 4G and 3G services.

This year in the US, Link NYC has started replacing old phone booths with Wi-Fi kiosks, offering free, ad funded, 1 Gb/s Wi-Fi. Google’s Project Fi, the Wi-Fi first MVNO in the US has recently gone live. This uses a network of free Wi-Fi access points and only falls back to the 4g / 3g service when the Wi-Fi signal is not strong enough. We’re also seeing the roll out of community Wi-Fi where fixed / cable companies are looking to utilise the Wi-Fi access points of their existing customer to create a ready-made network that can be used by their own MVNOs. In addition a crowdsourcing approach to community Wi-Fi is being provided by companies like Fon, who ask people to join up to their community by allowing other Fon customers access to their Wi-Fi. So far using this crowdsourcing approach Fon has developed a global network of over 18.5million Wi-Fi hotspots.

Mobile operators are also rolling Wi-Fi into their offers. Singtel offers high speed Wi-Fi in their mobile plans. In the US Sprint has partnered with Wi-Fi provider Boingo to offload traffic to Boingo’s Wi-Fi hotspots at airports in the US. This deal was only signed in April 2015 but by February 2016 Boingo were reporting that “roughly 22 million Sprint customers are now moving onto Boingo’s Wi-Fi network in dozens of U.S. airports across the country”.

Every cellular network has coverage holes. With network quality a key message for many operators, many are now looking at augmenting 4G networks with Wi-Fi to ensure an Always Best Connected approach. Diverting traffic from cellular to Wi-Fi used to be primarily about using the lowest cost transport. Now it can be used to improve the customer network experience by using the Always Best Connected business rules.

And this comes to the core of the issue about Wi-Fi as an alternative to, and an extension to cellular networks. Unless the quality of experience delivered is as good as, or better than 4G then it can’t be positioned as an alternative to 4G. For the examples above – be it Google Project Fi as an alternative, or Boingo and Sprint as an extension to cellular, one of the key messages they push home is quality. Customers don’t really care about networks. They just expect to be able to watch videos on their devices without any glitches, regardless of where they are. If service providers can deliver this QoE with Wi-Fi then there is a huge opportunity for them to take a lot of network operating cost out of the picture.

By Martin Morgan
VP Marketing at Openet