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Network World - Although vendor-written, this contributed piece does not advocate a position that is particular to the author's employer and has been edited and approved by Network World editors.
Growing cellular data bandwidth demands driven by the runaway growth of smart devices and bandwidth-hungry applications is forcing many mobile carriers to look for alternate data solutions to relieve their strained networks. With Wi-Fi available on most mobile devices, Wi-Fi offload is being embraced by a number of carriers around the world as a practical part-time solution because it is cost-effective, relatively easy to adopt and free of licences/regulatory requirements.
To make Wi-Fi offload work, carriers are either reaching agreements with local/global hotspot aggregators, installing independent hotspot infrastructure, or doing both, just to facilitate Internet access for the hotspot-connected subscriber. Once the subscriber is connected thru a Wi-Fi hotspot, the data load on the carrier's cellular network is relieved, leaving more bandwidth to be shared by other customers.
While carriers are unable to monetize data offload Wi-Fi hotspots and hotspot-connected subscribers miss out on regular carrier services, it would be hard for cellular tech to single-handedly keep pace with the predictions of explosive bandwidth demands. Moreover, such upgrades would be costly, time-consuming and often face radio spectrum constraints.
That's why industry experts are advocating carriers to make Wi-Fi an important and integrated part of their overall network infrastructure, even beyond offload. Integrating sophisticated Wi-Fi solutions into their core networks would open up a number of opportunities for carriers, making it possible to attract more customers and provide better service to existing ones, thereby strengthening their position versus competitors and even bring in more revenues.
Opportunities other than the inherent benefit of data offload includes:
* Consistent carrier-grade experience over Wi-Fi: Customer experience can be made consistent and carrier-grade at carrier-backed Wi-Fi hotspots, once sophisticated and integrated hotspot solutions are deployed as part of a carefully planned Wi-Fi strategy. Tight integration means simplified, seamless handovers to Wi-Fi from cellular and vice-versa. Similarly, advanced Wi-Fi security can be provisioned using unified EAP-SIM/EAP-AKA procedures. Also, the integration would allow customers to seamlessly access regular carrier services, including voice, messaging and other value-added services. Even billing could be integrated. [Also see: "Is patching cellular gaps with Wi-Fi secure?"]
* Easy injection of broadband capacity and coverage: Using strategically located public Wi-Fi hotspots that provide carrier-grade Wi-Fi access, enough capacity could be easily injected into dense metropolitan areas that are currently reeling under a capacity crunch. What's more, the same technology could be used to extend coverage where cell coverage is weak or nonexistent.