It’s been over 14 years since VoiceStream (now part of T-Mobile) bought the assets of MobileStar, which went bankrupt trying to build a public Wi-Fi network. Ownership is one way mobile operators can have greater control over the quality of experience (QoE) that Wi-Fi delivers, but that strategy has it limits.
For example, it takes a lot of time and money for a mobile operator to build or acquire enough hotspots to cover even just, say, the largest cities and airports on a continent. The more places that network doesn’t cover, the tougher it is for that operator to offload traffic from its cellular network.
As a result, most operators supplement their Wi-Fi networks by partnering with companies that own or aggregate Wi-Fi networks. But because they’re not the owners, those mobile operators have to rely on those partners to ensure that coverage, backhaul and other attributes meet their customers’ QoE expectations. Only in the past few years have Wi-Fi aggregators begun policing the QoE that their hotspot owner partners provide, which means most mobile operators haven’t yet been able to exploit this option in their contracts with aggregators.
Boingo Wireless acknowledged this trend in its February 2016 earnings call: “I think the big learning has been the notion of carrier quality or carrier grade is a critical component to rolling this out. And so, in our dealings with Sprint and their third-party testing firm, we literally test venue by venue, platform by platform for quality of service, including being able to do VoIP over Wi-Fi as you’re walking through one of our venues without call loss.”
A similar QoE challenge applies to “Wi-Fi First” operators such as Cablevision, Google and Scratch Wireless. These operators are even more dependent on Wi-Fi than their cellular peers when it comes to attracting and retaining customers, so it’s possible that many of them will focus on QoE when choosing aggregators and other partners. Although the Wi-Fi First category is relatively new, it’s rapidly growing, and that size will give it clout in terms of pressuring aggregators and hotspot owners to provide at least some level of QoE guarantees.
As QoE Tools Grow, So Do Market Opportunities
For hotspot owners and aggregators, there are obvious challenges to meeting demand for QoE. After all, Wi-Fi can’t use spectrum licenses to avoid interference. But a host of new 802.11 technologies and vendor products are providing more tools for mitigating interference and other challenges to QoE.
Maravedis conducts regular interviews with carriers to understand their position vis a vis next generation hotspots and new business models. For a free analysis, go “From 2016 to 5G: Wireless Broadband Alliance Industry Report”
Another example is Access Network Discovery and Selection Function (ANDSF), which is included in products such as Openet’s Network Selection Intelligence solution. When there are multiple Wi-Fi networks available in a place, ANDSF selects one based on predetermined factors such as the amount of bandwidth required or traffic congestion. The mobile operator or other service provider sets those factors, thus giving it additional tools for managing customer QoE.
Unique ANDSF polices can be applied to specific customers or customer groups. For instance, a major enterprise customer worth millions in annual revenue might get an ANDSF policy that ensures the absolute best possible QoE in order to retain that lucrative account. Meanwhile, budget-constrained consumers might be shifted to single-digit-Mbps hotspots when they start to reach 75 percent of their monthly cellular bucket.
Yet another example is an Internet of Things (IoT) application that doesn’t need a constant, fast connection might get an ANDSF that’s less stringent in exchange for a lower tariff. For instance, digital signage and surveillance cameras are among the IoT applications that either frequently use Wi-Fi for backhaul or could but don’t because of dubious service quality. So the more QoE tools there are available for public and private Wi-Fi networks, the more that 802.11 becomes a viable alternative to cellular, fiber and copper for IoT applications that require more than best-effort connectivity.
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