Mobile Offload: It's So Hot Right Now

Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week has produced some eye-catching developments, from Microsoft’s unveiling of its new mobile OS to the Skype/Verizon partnership to increasing tension between Google and network operators. But the show’s overriding theme has been the ever-increasing data consumption across mobile networks — and the crush of companies looking to help carriers offload that traffic.

The surge in smartphone sales has fueled a dramatic increase in the demand for mobile data, which in turn has brought some networks to their knees. And as Stacey noted last week, that demand will increase exponentially over the next few years as phones become more sophisticated and connectivity comes to a wide range of devices. Which is why carriers are scrambling to find alternative ways to deliver data to users in ways that don’t bog down the network.

“Offloading is crucial for us,” Orange’s Olaf Swantee told Reuters earlier this week. “In many countries where we have a fixed network we try to offload directly.”

Swantee’s remarks were echoed this week by CEOs from both Vodafone and RIM, who used the event to warn that smartphone users will soon demand more data than networks can deliver. Of course, both companies have skin in the game: RIM is touting its gadgets as bandwidth misers that generate minimal traffic on the network, and Vodafone — like its competitors — is scrambling to find a way to get heavy data users to pay more. But that urgency explains why players such as Accuris Networks, BelAir Networks, Bridgewater Systems, picoChip and Tellabs unveiled hardware and software in the last few days designed to help network operators use non-cellular technologies to move data.

Many of the new products use gear designed for fixed mobile convergence (FMC)  through Wi-Fi and femtocells, and a few are beginning to include support for 4G technologies. Tellabs, like the 6-year-old startup Stoke, offers a gateway designed to offload Internet-bound traffic before it reaches the carrier’s first core gateway. And Kineto Wireless  markets a smartphone client that automatically routes traffic to Wi-Fi networks.

The need to offload data traffic has spurred a femtocell industry that until recently had seen lackluster activity. Wi-Fi’s massive worldwide footprint makes it the offloading technology of choice for carriers, and network operators can encourage their customers to ease network congestion by using voluntarily using Wi-Fi when it’s available. The carriers will have to do a better job of supporting Wi-Fi and creating a seamless experience for users, though, if they hope to fully leverage the technology, Informa analyst Thomas Wehmeier wrote this week:

“A key hurdle that we still see is the need to overcome the issues of authentication and providing a better user experience for the customer when switching between cellular and WiFi networks. The days of logging in and out of hotspots need to go if operators really want to offload greater proportions of traffic onto WiFi. That being said, it seems that even with today’s pretty average WiFi experience on a typical smartphone, consumers are favouring WiFi over cellular.”

That demand for Wi-Fi is something carriers must meet if they’re to keep their customers happy — and if they hope to keep their networks running smoothly — as femtocells and other alternatives gain traction in the market.

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