Mobile Operators Need To Wake Up To Wi-Fi

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Operators don’t like voice over Wi-Fi says Wayne Rash. If they don’t change their ideas soon, they will face a colossal bandwidth crisis

If you own an iPhone, you already know what wireless data congestion looks like. It’s when your phone tells you that you have a strong signal, but you can’t connect to the 3G network, or you can get only a very weak, very slow connection.

The reason is because the cell site you’re using has reached its capacity, or perhaps the backhaul is at capacity. Either way, you can’t get your data through the pipe that’s available to you.

As high speed data networking demands grow, the iPhone problem is going to hit more and more carriers. This will happen because people are buying tablet devices that can show movies, devices with video conferencing, music downloads or data for voice services such as Skype. But whatever the reason, the demand will grow, and today’s seemingly vast LTE and WiMax networks will begin to seem very limited indeed.

Inside buildings, Wi-Fi vendors such as Aruba are responding to the issue, along with phone makers such as BlackBerry-maker RIM. Outside, it is up to the operators to define a strategy.

Density problem

Part of the problem is that 4G doesn’t lend itself all that well to very dense environments, so as data demand grows in the urban core of cities, the problem won’t get better just by adding more LTE or WiMax sites. Fortunately, there’s Wi-Fi. It’s also fortunate that most of the current crop of smartphones support Wi-Fi in addition to 3G/4G. Ruckus Wireless, a company that has been involved in delivering outdoor and last mile Wi-Fi data solutions for years has announced that it has a solution to this impending problem – which it promised last year.

The idea is a new crop of 802.11n access points and other devices that can provide reliable communications in tightly packed environments and provide high-speed backhaul and point-to-multipoint delivery solutions. Ruckus says its mobile Internet products can provide reliable Wi-Fi wireless communications to users equipped with compatible products whether they’re inside or outside. The new product line includes access points designed for exterior use as well as features such as a wireless backhaul that can handle over 80Mbps at distances as great as 8km.

According to David Callisch, marketing vice president for Ruckus, this wireless backhaul is dramatically less expensive than the existing microwave or fibre optic links used by carriers, but it still provides carrier-grade reliability and manageability. Ruckus has also released a Wi-Fi management system, its Flexmaster 9.0, that can manage the thousands of self-configuring meshed access points necessary to cover a large urban area. Such products are already in use in India and Chile where the existing carrier infrastructure won’t support the bandwidth demands of wireless networking.

There is, however, one area in which 3G congestion is likely to get worse, and where it can’t be fixed by making Wi-Fi available. That area is voice communications, which is arguably the most important part of having a phone. The reason is that, operators don’t like voice over Wi-Fi.

Voice-over-Wi-Fi

Voice over Wi-Fi saves the user a lot of cost – and this is precisely why operators don’t like it. In the US, T-Mobile started allowing Wi-Fi calling when it brought out the BlackBerry Curve a few years ago. This may have been due to the fact that T-Mobile’s coverage in the US was pretty thin and their 3G solution wasn’t going to be coming along right away. So as a result, the company created a service that lets you make calls using any Wi-Fi connection. Unless you were on a specific plan that allowed unlimited calling, you’d get charged your voice minutes just as if you’d made a call using T-Mobile’s regular voice network.

This kind of plan allows operators to support VoIP and still get revenue – but obviously doesn’t satisfy users who feel that voice over Wi-Fi should be free.  Generally operators prefer users to do their VoIP over the mobile data network where they get some revenue, rather than over public Wi-Fi – and VoIP over 3G is reportedly booming.

In the UK, 3 was the operator to bear the flag for VoIP on its mobile network, and has argued that doing so has allowed it gain market share, and even revenue. T-Mobile operates a Wi-Fi network but has not done a great deal to promote its use for voice.

“The carriers are going to have to allow this,” Callisch said. He pointed out that the 3G and 4G networks only have so much capacity. In dense urban environments Wi-Fi is the technology that makes sense, especially when it uses 11n with its support for specialised antenna technology and very high bandwidth, Callisch said.

In cities where it’s already available, such as in Hong Kong, Callisch said that as much as 80 percent of peak traffic is handled by Wi-Fi instead of 3G or 4G technologies. In many cases, this traffic comes from demand for video, he said, which is exactly the service that carriers want to provide because they can charge more for it. But he noted that, without it, the carriers are going to be limited in what they can provide.

Right now, however, it seems as if most carriers consider Wi-Fi to be mostly an afterthought. Most smartphones support Wi-Fi only for data, for the delivery of email and movies when they’re inside buildings. But outdoor Wi-Fi is already here, and it might be the only short term workable solution carriers have for the demands on their capacity. Now they just have to let their customers use it for everything.

Some information added by Peter Judge.

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Author: Wayne Rash
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