Doubtless most people not in the industry have probably never heard of Wi-Fi offloading. Actually, the concept is pretty simple.
Rack ’em up, stack ’em high
Due to certain constraints of physics and radio technology, mobile devices, (or, indeed, any connected to cellular networks), can only deliver a certain quantity of digital information (whether ‘data’ or ‘voice’) across the finite amount of bandwidth available to 2G, 3G and 4G.
What’s more, any given cell phone tower can only support a finite number of cell phones. As the amount of data being pushed across that bandwidth grows, networks are heading for a ‘capacity crunch’. At this point everyone’s data speeds will become slower and quality-of-service drop. This will, in turn, lead to dissatisfied customers and a higher rate of ‘churn’, as people continually move from one contract to another.
Think of it like a lot of people, all stood in a room trying to shout at once: If everyone in the room shouts, individual conversations become harder. Eventually people, frustrated, will start to leave the room, and will strike up conversations in another room, which is also crowded. And then someone throws a drink. It’s not a perfect metaphor…
So what can be done?
Increasing the number of masts will only do so much good, as they will eventually interfere with each other. If you make the range of these masts really short, you can fit loads of them into a small space. Even if you’ve not heard of ‘small cells’, ‘femtocells’ and ‘picocells’ you’ve probably heard of products like ‘Vodafone SureSignal’; which takes the mast-shrinking concept to its logical endpoint, effectively putting a tiny mobile phone mast in your house.
These solutions have their place. However, again, there’s a cost involved, and oddly, some small measure of resistance, (however ill-placed).
However, there’s one technology that’s going begging: It’s been around for years, it’s usually free, it’s extremely robust and reliable, it’s widely trusted and understood, and it can deliver extremely high quality-of-service: Wi-Fi.
In the last few years networks have been looking at the vast network of Wi-Fi nodes, all connected to the internet, thinking, ‘Why can’t we use that? After all, it’s free, it’s high-speed, and it could, potentially, provide the solution to networks’ problems.’
One problem is that the process has to be frictionless: No-one can be bothered to stop, find out the password of a Wi-Fi hotspot, and enter it into their device; they just want things to work automatically.
Networks and standards
Over the last few years some positive steps have been made: Mobile networks such as Virgin and O2 have set up their own proprietary Wi-Fi networks. However, installing all those hotspots is expensive, often requires a password anyway, and the hotspots tend to be concentrated on urban areas.
The password and security issues, at least, are on their way to being solved. Standards (such as ANDSF) are being worked out to allow devices to hand-off from cellular, and/or automatically connect to certain Wi-Fi networks. The industry is hammering out ways in which to interoperate between their proprietary Wi-Fi networks and ensure that, if they are held responsible for activity over that network, it can be tracked (up to a point).
One company, (who I’ll actually be with at Mobile World Congress this year), has worked out a rather clever ‘third way’: Rather than accessing only private Wi-Fi networks, proprietary networks, or a combination thereof, this company’s technology has a very clever way of allowing devices to connect to what it calls a Curated Virtual Network, (CVN); a vast network of public Wi-Fi nodes that is automatically crowdsourced or opt-in qualified. This allows devices to automatically qualify aspects such as passwords, security, connection quality, etc, and then decide whether to connect automatically, based on a huge amount of data in an ‘intelligence layer’ in the cloud. The practical upshot of all this is a huge network of automatically-accessible Wi-Fi that operators can potentially access.
The future and offloading at MWC
Wi-Fi offloading in general is a fascinating technology. I’ll be at MWC 2013 in Barcelona representing one of our Wi-Fi offloading clients: It will be interesting to see at the show exactly which operators and MVNOs will be making a big deal of their offloading capabilities, and the benefits they will eventually bring to the consumer. I daresay we’ll also notice a fair few new faces at the show supplying infrastructure and software services connected to the offload ecosphere.
Offloading is, I suspect, one of those things that, as it gains wide traction in Europe via the major operators, will quickly and suddenly become one of those things that everybody just ‘has’ and understands, and, like Wi-Fi itself, will almost feel like something we ‘always’ had; just another piece of the furniture.
If it has its desired effect, Wi-Fi offloading will be as natural and almost seamless as cellular connectivity itself, allowing us to reap the benefits of continued expansion within digital communications.