What's next for cellular? Try Wi-Fi

This vendor-written tech primer has been edited by Network World to eliminate product promotion, but readers should note it will likely favor the submitter's approach.

A perception exists that a network war is unfolding in the enterprise, with Wi-Fi facing off against up-and-coming cellular services, specifically 4G.

Wi-Fi is a seasoned, accessible solution for business, while 4G is still being refined for enterprise-specific needs but appears to hold great promise as a low-latency protocol that can support critical enterprise applications, a necessity in the "business everywhere" enterprise of today.

But this perception of a "war" does not actually hold water. While some analysts tabbed 4G as a Wi-Fi killer, carriers and wireless operators remained quiet on the subject, portraying it more as a companion or parallel service in many cases. Why this silence when it comes to taking on 4G's rival headfirst? Because the next big thing in cellular could actually be Wi-Fi.

LTE SPECTRUM: How much do the big carriers have?

BACKGROUND: Wi-Fi, mobile data, BYOD and tablets -- an interesting puzzle: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Not-so-strange bedfellows

Often taken for granted, at least by businesses outside of the service industry, is the fact that many wireless carriers and operators already offer Wi-Fi service, albeit on a hotspot/location limited basis. Starbucks coffee shops, for example, are AT&T free Wi-Fi zones, while many airports and other public venues offer similar offerings through Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon.

The reasoning behind these Wi-Fi zones is twofold. First, it affirms the ubiquitous nature of carriers to both the business world and the general public -- the goodwill earned by carriers through Wi-Fi hotspots can lead to customer retention and new deals. Second, and perhaps most importantly, free Wi-Fi provides an offload from busy cellular networks. Rather than watching hours of YouTube videos over 4G, a coffee shop patron could hop on to free Wi-Fi for their streaming media fix, easing the congestion on the carrier network.

But the Wi-Fi of today, both in the corner deli and the boardroom, is a poor parallel to what the service will look like once wireless carriers fully integrate it into product portfolios.

Carrier Wi-Fi will potentially have much more in common with 4G than it does with the Wi-Fi we're currently familiar with. "True" Wi-Fi will offer a full suite of sophisticated backend functions, including billing and priority capabilities, along with smarter end user authentication and support for a heavy user load, providing a far more comprehensive and enterprise class service.

As a pre-emergent service, the business model for carrier Wi-Fi is still very much in flux, but at its core involves offering Wi-Fi as an addendum or add-on to 4G LTE. This allows a carrier to keep both businesses and consumers locked on to its network, reaping the benefits of static user numbers, while being able to offload high traffic from the 4G network to the free Wi-Fi spectrum, not to mention retaining customers, thanks to an overall enhanced experience on its network.

The technology behind carrier Wi-Fi will most likely go far beyond "routers strapped to poles," as the service footprint must match the coverage of (or at least come close to matching) 4G. Essentially, carrier Wi-Fi must cover multiple spectrums and a high-data footprint -- a technical hurdle to overcome if there ever was one. Wi-Fi hardware manufacturers are slowly making progress in this arena by piggybacking off of advancements in distributed antenna systems (DAS) and fiber access, but it's likely that the business plan will outpace the actual technical achievement. [Also see: "Wi-Fi, small cells could disrupt mobile"]

Technical challenges aside, the good news is that carrier Wi-Fi remains Wi-Fi, meaning that legacy devices will still operate, albeit with increased efficiency. The load constraints of Wi-Fi today are a limiting factor for many businesses, something that a carrier service eliminates, which is why enterprises should watch carrier encroachment into the Wi-Fi world with interest.

The enterprise scenario

But the question posed by the enterprise, as always, is "why?" As in, why should an enterprise CIO or IT manager care about carrier Wi-Fi? The answer is easy -- it takes the Wi-Fi burden off of corporate IT, saving money on a commodity service and freeing up IT to deal with tasks that are actually relevant to business differentiation, not day-to-day operation.

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Additionally, a carrier Wi-Fi offering would allow enterprises to streamline network infrastructure -- converging support for cellular and Wi-Fi services into a single technology, perhaps something along the lines of an evolved DAS. Multiple operators and services could easily be supported, cellular and Wi-Fi to public safety and two-way radio, streamlining all enterprise communications into a single hub.

Enterprises have already started down the path to outsourcing commodity services with the cloud -- everything from email to infrastructure to applications is now available for less and with fewer headaches via outsourcing. Should Wi-Fi really be that different? An outsourced service becomes more predictable, complete with a solid SLA, and at the very least it provides a powerful parallel network in the event that terrestrial Internet goes down.

Carrier Wi-Fi will push the limits of what enterprises expect in terms of connectivity, moving network access beyond the bounds of "just" 4G or standard Wi-Fi. As more and more wireless operators begin building up offerings, enterprises need to move beyond the question of "why" and ask "why not."

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