Electronic Design

Wi-Fi Riding High And Reaching Higher

Carrier Wi-Fi attracts both cellular operators for network offload and cable TV operators for expansion into wireless.

Wi-Fi has become the go-to wireless service to meet our demands for ever-faster Internet access and multiple demanding applications like video. Our laptops, tablets, and even smart phones would be next to worthless without Wi-Fi. And Wi-Fi keeps getting better with faster versions like the new 802.11ac standard, which delivers up to 1.3-Gbit/s service in the 5-GHz unlicensed band. The Wi-Fi Alliance’s Hotspot 2.0 (Passpoint) also greatly enhances the use of Wi-Fi for roaming and automatic connections.

As the number of Wi-Fi hotspots increases, many of them are part of a growing system of carrier Wi-Fi networks. Carrier Wi-Fi generally refers to high-quality hotspots supported by the cellular carriers hoping to offload some of their high-speed video traffic from the cellular network, easing the burden and slowing the need for the rollout of even faster LTE and LTE-Advanced 4G services. While Wi-Fi offload is not common yet, it is coming as the cellular providers add Wi-Fi networking capability.

But that’s not all. Cable TV operators are enthusiastically adopting Wi-Fi as their entrance into the lucrative wireless market. Five of the biggest U.S. cable operators—Bright House Networks, Comcast, Cablevision, Cox, and Time Warner Cable—have formed an alliance called Cable WiFi to take advantage of their growing Wi-Fi use. Customers of any of the alliance members can roam seamlessly in the largest Wi-Fi network in the U.S. with more than 150,000 hotspots.

ABI Research indicates that this marketing strategy will allow cable operators to better retain their customers and enhance their service while providing a way to monetize the roaming feature. Carrier Wi-Fi access point shipments will reach 9.7 million users by 2018, ABI predicts. This is positive news, but is there a downside? “Seamless access to high-data-rate Wi-Fi is helping to shape user expectations and behavior in the cellular network, creating a traffic onload effect counter to offload benefits,” says Ahmed Ali, a research analyst at ABI.

The cable companies are also battling the carmakers over Wi-Fi spectrum issues. The cable companies want more Wi-Fi spectrum to expand their services. This expansion is encroaching on the car companies, who are working to use Wi-Fi in the forthcoming Intelligent Transportation System (ITS). The auto companies want to implement vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) systems in cars and trucks to greatly reduce accidents and traffic congestion. The conflict centers on valuable space in the 5-GHz unlicensed spectrum. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will have its hands full resolving this one as these giant industries battle.

Further proof of Wi-Fi’s importance and growing influence comes from the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), an industry association focused on driving the next-generation Wi-Fi experience. The WBA recently announced the findings of its Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) report conducted with research firm Senza Fili. The report examines the cost and revenue benefits that NGH will bring to fixed and mobile operators. It emphasizes the need to move beyond legacy hotspot Wi-Fi and upgrade to NGH, which today boasts seamless secure authentication and automatic service discovery and selection and will soon include online signup and policy support. The report goes on to project that NGH Wi-Fi will account for 9% of global mobile traffic and reach $150 billion in operator revenue by 2018.

For more details, contact ABI Research for its latest report, “Carrier Wi-Fi Operator Activity: North America, Japan, Korea and Europe,” at www.abiresearch.com. Contact the WBA for a look at its NGH report at www.wballiance.com. For more information on Passpoint, see the Wi-Fi Alliance at www.wi-fi.org.

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