Managed hotspot provider Boingo Wireless is leading the charge to bring virtualization to public WiFi networks, in order to reap the same benefits which mobile operators are targeting in their cellular platforms. Boingo says about 20% of its WiFi locations in US airports now support the NFV (Network Functions Virtualization) specifications, which are becoming a widely accepted standard.
The company aims to expand NFV to most of its networks in US airports and large venues this year. Considering how new and largely untried NFV is, this represents rapid progress in an effort that started about a year ago, when Boingo announced a virtualization initiative with Procera Networks. Its aim is to reduce the need for hardware roll-out and upgrades, as well as to support traffic more efficiently and improve customers’ quality of experience.
As WiFi networks move towards carrier-class performance and become highly strategic to operators such as cablecos, they need to adopt the same kind of optimization and QoS techniques which are more familiar in cellular. And many are looking at the cost efficiencies and flexibility of doing that on off-the-shelf hardware.
At the Consumer Electronics Show last week, Boingo’s CTO Derek Peterson said NFV is living up to its promises of making it easier, quicker and cheaper to reconfigure hotspot networks to improve performance, and deploy new services.
This is part of a broader strategy which Boingo calls SMART (Secure, Multiplatform, Analytics-Driven, Responsive and Tiered) Networks, and which it announced in 2014 as a way to get ahead of the managed WiFi pack and offer new levels of flexibility and consistent experience to its wholesale and retail customers. That is all about matching quality of service to different users – or in Boingo’s case, roaming partners such as cablecos too – in order to use network resources more efficiently and target them where they are most needed, while improving the customer experience, especially for high value customers and services. The company sees virtualization as a way to increase the dynamic aspect of this goal while controlling costs.
Peterson told FierceWirelessTech that the company designed some of its NFV technology inhouse and used some open source elements, as well as adopting Procera’s
PacketLogic/V virtual CPE solution. This shapes network traffic to improve efficiency and QoS, and to apply different classes of services to individual locations or subscribers, according to personalized profiles. For instance, users in airports can now choose from tiered service plans ranging from 5Mbps to 50Mbps and with varying levels of QoS.
All these capabilities are incorporated into a controller which is installed in the network to centralize management. On the vCPE side, Procera claims its software can now match the raw performance of a hardware CPE, achieving 150Gbps on an off-the-shelf x86-based box.
Peterson has said of the Procera tool: “Their ability to deliver a fully virtualized PacketLogic solution enabled Boingo to achieve the ROI that we needed for our business model. We evaluated hardware-based solutions, but they did not meet our cost or deployment flexibility requirements.”
Boingo’s first NFV deployments were in five US airports including Dallas/Fort Worth. This will be important to support major wholesale contracts such as its WiFi offload deal with Sprint, which is centered on 35 airports.
It is also implementing virtualization on the data center side and Peterson told CES that process is 90% complete, and that 60% of its network processing functions are now conducted in the cloud, rather than locally.
Boingo also builds small cell, DAS and WiFi networks in many kinds of public locations, in a major expansion of its original hotspot aggregation model for consumers and business travellers. In the third quarter, it reported revenue of $37.2m, up 20.6% year-on-year, but its net loss widened to $4.8m, from $3.8m a year earlier.