Editor's note: Smartphone Wi-Fi capabilities offer opportunities for 3G offload to mobile network operators, helping them cope with bandwidth-hungry applications like video. Selina Lo, CEO of Ruckus Wireless, a wireless networking vendor, talked to SearchTelecom.com about how carriers' deployment of Wi-Fi hotspots is maturing. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation. Last week, our two-part article addressed the quickening pace of alternative telecom network management options and the changing wireless business model evolving for Wi-Fi hotspots, femtocell technology and 3G offload.
Wi-Fi hotspots and smartphone Wi-Fi have been around for years. What is changing about how and why carriers use them?
We've been selling to the carriers for a long time what people now call 3G offload. Previously, they called it hotspots, but it's really much more than hotspots for casual Wi-Fi access. There's nothing new about hotspots. Carriers have been doing that, but historically, they look at hotspots as just offering their subscribers casual Internet access or email … and actually, for a long time, they were saying, "Well, we don't make enough revenue on the hotspot network because it's really only tailored to people who carry a laptop around."
All the cellular carriers are taking a new look at Wi-Fi. Years ago, they looked at Wi-Fi as competition. They didn't want Wi-Fi to take traffic off their networks. Now, they love to take traffic off the network because people are using the network in whole different ways -- they're streaming video, they're streaming Pandora [Radio] all the time, instead of a quick SMS message, they're doing a whole Facebook upload of photos and videos to their friends, and so the mobile data network is getting loaded up, especially during a peak event. For Michael Jackson's memorial service, I know some of the mobile carriers' infrastructure was loaded up with 80% utilization, which is very high -- too high for carriers' comfort.
By embracing smartphone Wi-Fi for 3G offload, aren't they admitting, 'My mobile network isn't really that good'?
The best mobile network is still going to get congested at times, and the key thing now with the mobile Internet is it happens so fast and there are so many devices coming out that can consume so much more bandwidth. There are so many apps that operators no longer control how people use their handsets. People no longer have a predictable usage pattern.
What AT&T is doing with all its Wi-Fi hotspots is it's being very proactive. Wi-Fi is much easier to deploy, so it's easy for them to add that service as part of their service offering to users, and you also can see AT&T's hotspot usage has been going up and up … and if you talk to users, they like using Wi-Fi when it's available because Wi-Fi speed is always anywhere between two [and] 10 times faster than cellular speed. Even when cellular moves to 4G, that's still going to be the case because Wi-Fi is also continuing to evolve to higher speeds…. Wi-Fi cannot replace 3G and 4G because in terms of coverage, it's just not a highly mobile type of architecture. But it's a very good way to augment 3G for indoor coverage and for nomadic and data applications.
Will 4G make the need for offloading onto smartphone Wi-Fi obsolete?
The thing about 3G and 4G is they're both based on licensed spectrum, and cellular is always going to be based on licensed spectrum. Licensed spectrum is always going to be limited because you have to pay for it. No matter how efficient you make that spectrum, you have devices that can eat up more.
Being a technology using unlicensed spectrum, Wi-Fi is always a good way to offload the network and build more capacity at the lowest possible cost per bit. You don't need to pay for spectrum and the Wi-Fi equipment is at a much lower cost, so I believe that even with LTE, carriers are going to continue to look at Wi-Fi as part of their whole mobile strategy.
What's going to be the tipping point to make smartphone Wi-Fi a ubiquitous 3G offload strategy?
Already in 2009 and 2010, a lot of carriers are building out more hotspots, and it's not just dumb hotspots -- it's hotpsots that are now getting much more user friendly. For example, now with AT&T with the iPhone, you don't have to enter the network SSID, you don't have to enter your authentication code every time you use the hotspot. AT&T makes the phone authenticate by itself when it sees an AT&T ID. A lot of carriers are investing in that area -- to make hotspots part of the infrastructure. But in terms of tipping points, such as 80% of the carriers will be doing this, I think you're looking at 2011 or 2012.
You need to make that authentication automatic. One thing people really hate is [typing in a long password on the tiny keyboard] every time they use Wi-Fi. That's a disincentive. So, what AT&T did with the iPhone is automate that process so that your iPhone actually carries a unique authentication code. Each time it sees an AT&T hotspot and the user has turned on Wi-Fi, it will automatically send that code to AT&T's authentication system….. In terms of making the authentication easier and easier, it's a given that [all carriers] are going to have to do it.
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer