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November 07, 2012

Wireless Broadband Alliance Industry Report: Wi-Fi on a Roll

The Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) has released its annual look at the state of the public Wi-Fi industry and the view is quite rosy. Conducted by research firm Informa Telecom & Media, the report, “WBA Wi-Fi Industry Report: Global Trends in Public Wi-Fi.,” which carries the sub-title, “Next Generation Hotspot: Moving from Standardization (November 2012),” is a terrific snapshot of the enormous changes that are impacting not just mobile operators, but the entire industry—cable TV companies looking to extend their reach, public Wi-Fi carriers like Boingo, OTTs, chip set makers and yes don’t forget the device manufacturers. 

I happen to have the honor of being the moderator of the Wi-Fire WBA event in San Francisco and will be reporting over the next several days about my own observations and insights gained from the leaders of the wireless industry who are gathered here. That said, I think you should visit the WBA website and learn about the composition of this organization which is remarkably eclectic, and its mission to help create a future that is:

  • Interoperable
  • Seamless
  • Secure

The WBA has made impressive progress on its flagship initiative Next Generation Hotspot (NGH), which is a great start on achieving its mission, and which through its Passpoint equipment certification effort and technology trials has laid the groundwork for the rollout of NGH beginning in the first half of next year. I also would recommend downloading the report which is filled with some very valuable information.

What they found

A few of the most interesting findings will be reproduced below. The ones that made headlines and that is worth a pullout was that for the first time in history, and illustrating the profound impact of the smartphone/tablet/BYOD explosions , were:

  • Hotspot connections are now led by smartphones (40 percent), followed closely by laptops (39 percent) and then tablets (17 percent)
  • Rapid deployment of NGH, which is based on Passpoint certified equipment, is coming with 19 percent of operator respondents planning to deploy by the end of 2013.

Why this is important is because NGH dramatically simplifies public Wi-Fi access, especially from smartphones, by allowing secure connections without the need for usernames and passwords, and is seen as a vital tool for offloading busy mobile broadband networks.

The two most telling findings are in figures 13 and 14 from the study.

This shows how strong the momentum is for deploying a main feature of NGH which is interoperable Wi-Fi roaming, a capability that is good not only for consumers looking to extend their accessibility to the things that matter to them, but for service providers of various stripes to extend their reach.

The drivers are what might be expected as mobile service providers seek to solve capacity issues, but also try to stem customer defections to those who might beat them to the punch in monetizing the opportunity.

The report’s conclusions are worth considering:

  • Wi-Fi is playing an increasingly fundamental role in the operators’ overall mobile broadband experience as they move toward offering the best end-user experience possible.
  • Offering Wi-Fi is becoming a more important factor for end users when choosing operators: Wi-Fi is already a real differentiator for operators and will become more so over the next 12 months. Operators that integrate Wi-Fi into their overall mobile broadband experience best will be able to realize competitive advantages that will have a positive impact on KPIs.
  • Wi-Fi will play an increasingly central role in operators’ mobile broadband experience as cellular-to-Wi-Fi offload becomes a reality. As this happens, operators will look to Wi-Fi to offer end users a DSL-like experience on-the-go and, even where LTE is available, to offload traffic to Wi-Fi to maximize cost-per-GB efficiency and reduce OpEx and CapEx.
  • Operators must work to increase the number of Wi-Fi roaming agreements to improve the Wi-Fi roaming experience. They need to consider whether to offer Wi-Fi roaming as part of their overall data roaming service package or whether to try and generate incremental revenue from Wi-Fi roaming. They should closely consider bundling Wi-Fi roaming into their data-roaming packages to drive overall usage and to increase competitive positioning rather than as a stand-alone revenue stream.
  • The industry must continue working closely together to ensure common standards offer a seamless, cellular-like Wi-Fi experience to end users and also to lay a solid foundation for operators to compete on. Standards are essential to enable operators are to realize the Wi-Fi roaming opportunity.
  • To realize the opportunities and potential of NGH standards and technology, the industry must also work together to identify and communicate examples of best practice to give operators confidence that they will be able to make a return on investment on NGH equipment.

A few things in this list standout. The first is that there is much work yet to be done by not just the WBA members, but by all members of the wireless broadband ecosystem to continue the standards work that ultimately will mean that when customers turn on their personal devices they use the best available network for connection regardless of radio technology employed, and that operators have a platform that enable them to do so yet create differentiated value.

The second is that working out the various business relationships on roaming and billing needs to be addressed.  And, as echoed here at the event, there needs to be acknowledgement that Wi-Fi is not a competitor to cellular it is a complimentary capability, and there are roles to be played in providing an infrastructure of radio access types (RATS)—macro cellular, and of the various sizes of small cells that use licensed spectrum, and obviously the unlicensed Wi-Fi access points—that give consumers a high-performance and seamless experience regardless of how they connect. 

Much of the predicted exponential growth of data traffic headed our way is going to be generated by personal devices, and much if not most of that traffic is going to originate and terminate on Wi-Fi networks.   As the report highlights, it is a great but challenging time to be in the wireless broadband business, particularly in Wi-Fi.

Edited by Brooke Neuman

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