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Smartphone Wi-Fi has promise, drawbacks for mobile data traffic offload

Jessica Scarpati

If it's cheaper to plug in some wireless access points than to build a base station or cell site, then why not take advantage of smartphone Wi-Fi capabilities to offload some mobile data traffic with public Wi-Fi hotspots? Sounds logical, but wireless operators feeling the data crunch may want to consider it only as a temporary fix -- not a permanent solution.

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I can't see it being much more than an interim solution while the mobile networks are being beefed up.
Steven Hartley
Senior AnalystOvum
"Could they do it? Yes. Does it make sense everywhere? No. Is it likely to be a major strategy? At this point in time, I don't really see it. You could characterize it more as a stopgap," said Mike Jude, a program manager at Stratecast, a division of Frost & Sullivan. "It seems like an awful lot of complexity to save a few bucks."

As operators enter the early phase of 4G network testing -- and for a rare few, such as Sprint Nextel Corp., deployment -- an impending mobile data traffic surge, often referred to as the "IP tsunami," is expected to engulf their networks before they can upgrade to next-generation networking. The latest mobile data traffic forecast from Cisco Systems predicts a 39-fold increase from 2009 to 2014.

On the other hand, wireless networking technologies recently made the leap from 802.11g to 802.11n, achieving a tenfold increase in speed and fairly swift adoption. Service providers whose roots are in the wireline business already would have the fiber in the ground to accommodate public Wi-Fi hotspots.

Leveraging smartphone Wi-Fi has drawbacks

Although analysts don't dismiss smartphone Wi-Fi offloading as a bad idea, they are lukewarm to it as anything more than a way to stop the bleeding.

"It's a bit of a short-term stopgap for a wider

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capacity and coverage alleviation strategy, but it does work -- a lot of smartphones are Wi-Fi-enabled, a lot of laptops are Wi-Fi enabled," said Steven Hartley, a senior analyst at Ovum. "[But] I can't see it being much more than an interim solution while the mobile networks are being beefed up."

Although using smartphone Wi-Fi to offload mobile data traffic may improve performance, Hartley said it would probably damage the user experience.

For starters, he said, customers will not appreciate the battery drain of having both the Wi-Fi and mobile network activated at once. Managing the two on the user end might also be a turn-off, Hartley added, noting that carriers would be better served to focus their cap-ex on upgrading to HSPA.

Taking advantage of smartphone Wi-Fi capabilities in a few small areas of congestion could ease some of the mobile data traffic pain, Jude said, but Wi-Fi wouldn't perform well as an overlay to the carrier network .

"The coverage just has to be ubiquitous for 3G … and you're definitely going to have to work dynamically to support [both Wi-Fi and mobile broadband]," he said. "That's one of those issues -- that maintaining a session dynamic between those two domains is really not built into the architecture of 3G."

The strategy also has a big marketing problem, Jude pointed out -- it's based on an admission of guilt.

"You're sort of saying, 'Our 3G network isn't that good,'" he said.

Some carriers embrace smartphone Wi-Fi with public hotspots

Ruckus Wireless has sold Wi-Fi hotspot offloading solutions to at least a half-dozen leading service providers from around the world -- including Time Warner Cable, Louisiana-based CenturyLink, Bright House Networks of upstate New York, Japan's NTT DoCoMo, Nordic operator Telenor, PCCW of Hong Kong, and China Telecom, the country's third largest mobile operator.

"Last year and the year before, [wireless carriers] would've said, 'You've got to be kidding me. We would never sully our reputation with something as cheesy as Wi-Fi,'" said Steven Glapa, director of business development in carrier markets at Ruckus. "Now, it's not that they're desperate. It's that they have to use every resource they can find."

Kineto Wireless, a small startup that focuses exclusively on what it calls "Smart Offload," recently released a product combining UMA-enabled generic access network controllers with a smartphone application -- naming T-Mobile in the U.S. and Orange in Europe as its customers.

Although often made into the whipping boy of mobile data traffic problems because of its relationship with Apple's iPhone, AT&T claims to operate the United States' largest Wi-Fi network, with more than 20,000 hotspots, according to spokeswoman Jenny Bridges.

More than 30 million qualifying AT&T customers have Wi-Fi access included with their plan at no additional charge, she said. In 2009, these customers made four times as many Wi-Fi connections, 85.5 million, as they had done in the previous year.

"We feel that Wi-Fi provides a bridge between [wired and wireless broadband networks]," Bridges wrote in an emailed statement. "It allows us to offer speed and mobility -- and flexibility for the customer to choose the best connection for their location, device and needs," she added. "We work to optimize bandwidth across our networks, which helps us manage operational expenses associated with increasing capacity and traffic management."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer


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