The growing demand for Wi-Fi access

When we covered Cisco’s annual Visual Networking Index (VNI) forecast update earlier this month, one of the noteworthy highlights was how demand for wireless access is growing: by 2019, Wi-Fi and mobile devices are projected to account for 66% of IP traffic. One example of an ecosystem that will drive wireless growth is a “smart city” such as the one announced by Cisco, Sprint, and Kansas City, MO., announced earlier this week.

The “Smart+Connected City” framework is designed to transform urban services with applications including smart lighting, digital kiosks, a development data portal, and smart water innovation development. As part of the project, Sprint will construct and manage an intelligent Wi-Fi network that will serve as the backbone for the connectivity platform.

The demand for and availability of Wi-Fi access as a substitute for traditional cellular voice and mobile data has been growing, especially over the past 18 months and especially among cable operators. For example, Comcast’s Xfinity Wi-Fi network now boasts over eight million hot spots. Cablevision reports that its average broadband subscriber consumes over 6GB of data monthly on its Wi-Fi network, and it offers a Wi-Fi-only calling service called Freewheel. Charter’s CEO plans to quickly grow pubic Wi-Fi access as part of his company’s acquisition plan of Time Warner Cable—including consideration of becoming a wireless mobile voice and data provider.

The implications for mobile unified communications connectivity are many. First, the growing availability of hot spots allows more places to connect. Second, many of these are available at no charge provided the employee or business owner has a wireline broadband subscription that comes complete with Wi-Fi access. Third, security concerns continue to grow because many of these hot spots are shared, so organizations need to assure that they take proper precautions when allowing mobile Wi-Fi access.

Fourth, quality of service on Wi-Fi is subject to many factors such as the number of users on a shared wireless access point; this will be especially important as video-based collaboration grows. Also, the ability to roam between Wi-Fi access points, and from the Wi-Fi network to the mobile data network is technically possible; however, the business processes to allow it aren’t in place so dropped sessions will be common. Real time communications quality between consumers and business (e.g. with WebRTC) will be complicated with mobile devices that use Wi-Fi for connectivity. One solution to address some of these quality concerns would be for operators to offer public Wi-Fi access as a managed Internet service, although to do so might run contrary to FCC net neutrality regulations.

Still, even though public Wi-Fi access is largely an unmanaged network service, the convenience, cost, and growing ubiquity guarantee that Wi-Fi demand will continue to grow in support of unified communications and collaboration and other applications.

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