I’d love to take credit for the above headline, alas it was coined by Light Reading journalist Michelle Donegan, in a pre-Mobile World Congress blog post. Though, it wouldn’t have taken a crystal ball for her to foretell that this year’s MWC would be so pro-Wi-Fi.
In the 12 months leading up to this year’s show, Wi-Fi has undergone a dramatic public image overhaul in the mobile marketplace. The fact that it managed to gatecrash the industry’s biggest show without any major technical improvements or developments of its own speaks volumes for its new place of acceptance sitting at the high table in the boardrooms of the mobile operator community.
The CEO of Wi-Fi player Ruckus Wireless, Selina Lo, summed up why she thinks Wi-Fi has become such a prominent story among carriers: “Operators have been historically reluctant to adopt Wi-Fi because of its inherent instability within the shared unlicensed spectrum, preferring to focus on their own very expensive and exclusive licensed spectrum,” she told the MWC Show Daily in the Day 1 issue. “But current and even future cellular macro architectures simply don’t have the capacity to support [rising mobile data usage].”
Lo added that operators now see Wi-Fi as a “key component of an integrated mobile data network,” combining smarter Wi-Fi, cellular and backhaul technology into a single unit. It’s all managed by a new class of edge platform called ‘small cell gateways,’ which, guess what? Ruckus can sell you. This is fair enough, of course, you would have to be somewhat naive to take at face value anything that you’re told by a tech vendor at a trade show, if someone talks about an industry challenge, you can bet they have a solution that can help. But that doesn’t mean everything vendors say is driven by the marketing department! Ruckus is doing very well at the moment, so there is clearly more to Selina Lo’s statement than messaged hype.
Offload is a huge part of Wi-Fi’s attraction for carriers, but it means nothing really to consumers, and without very strong consumer support, the carriers’ ambitions tend to fall flat. Femtocells promised to solve some of the carriers’ biggest challenges while offering the benefit of improved indoor coverage for consumers. But even with that pull, femtocells failed to find a way into the hearts and homes of the masses.
Indeed, just before MWC, the Femto Forum decided it was time to rename itself the Small Cell Forum. The announcement said the name change was in recognition of its work “which embraces residential, enterprise, metro and rural small cells, as well as to prevent the perception that the small cell arena is fragmented ...” and that it would now “...support the crossover between small cells and other relevant technologies including: Wi-Fi…”
Consumers don’t care what the Femto/Small Cell Forum calls itself. They just want speedy, reliable coverage balanced against minimal financial outlay. Wi-Fi can help out there already. ISPs and fixed broadband providers have effectively funded Wi-Fi’s domestic/enterprise roll out. Continued consumerization will accelerate this rollout. Smartphone owners habitually lock their devices into known Wi-Fi hotspots and then they spend almost all of their time online using that device over Wi-Fi.
Informa Telecoms & Media was reported in the Show Daily saying that Wi-Fi data consumption exceeds cellular by a factor of two to one, and that Wi-Fi accounted for 70 percent of all smartphone originated traffic.
Ahead of the mobile show, we did some research of our own, polling the registered show press for their opinions on Wi-Fi. A massive 89 percent of respondents said they would like to see carrier-branded Wi-Fi services in place to complement the 3G networks – pretty overwhelming support from the people who cover the industry on a professional basis.
It is a groundswell of opinion that certainly helped validate an announcement that Kineto made regarding a new Smart VoIP solution. Smart VoIP is a downloadable app that enables carriers to brand a mobile VoIP solution. It runs on all the major smartphone operating systems and over any operators’ core network.
I don’t have a crystal ball, but I am willing to bet that Wi-Fi will remain a popular news item in 2012. With Mobile World Congress moving to a new, and already sold-out, venue that has more than a third more show-floor space, you can be sure that the strain on local cellular networks will be even greater. We can expect to see the Mobile Wi-Fi Congress growing in 2013.