Most people take roaming agreements between cellular operators for granted, if they even think of them at all. These agreements — which allow consumers to wander in and out of a cellular coverage area without losing their calls — are set up between the major carriers for voice and even for data, but they may soon encompass Wi-Fi. According to a Cisco product manager, operators are becoming more interested in Wi-Fi roaming, which could enable consumers to hop onto more Wi-Fi networks and may even make such hopping seamless.
I first wrote about Wi-Fi roaming over a year ago, after talking to an executive at BelAir Networks, which makes carrier-grade Wi-Fi equipment. Its gear was later used for the shared Wi-Fi network for Cablevision, Time Warner Cable and Comcast in New York. But in general, carriers remained skeptical about share Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi roaming. However, Chris Kozup, director of Borderless Networks at Cisco, says thanks to the growing importance of network offload, the reluctance to share Wi-Fi may be diminishing.
“One of the things we’ve been driving aggressively with the Wireless Broadband Alliance are roaming agreements between carriers for Wi-Fi. There’s a lot of work to define those rules, but it’s a natural thing in the cellular market today and we’d like to drive that same experience in the Wi-Fi environment,” Kozup said in an interview last Thursday.
Already, carriers are trying on some interesting business models around Wi-Fi, outside of just offering their customers free connections. For example, some carriers are talking to enterprise or college campuses where existing Wi-Fi networks are in operation and volunteering to manage those networks for the campus, in order to let their customers roam onto that network or use it, Kozup said. In the past, carriers would have no interest in managing a Wi-Fi network for a corporate customer, but today, Wi-Fi is so important to their business that they are now changing their minds.
The rationale for Wi-Fi roaming is simple. Carriers need it to deliver a good customer experience. The demand for mobile data will far exceed the capacity of cellular networks according to most sources, so having a decent alternative network that can handle data makes sense. Cisco, for example, predicts that mobile data will grow 26-fold in the next four years. Much of that growth will come from video, which is more challenging to stream over networks, since it depends on a continuous connection of bits that are assembled in real time to make up the content, as opposed to a single download that can be reassembled later.
With most tablets and smart phones already containing Wi-Fi radios, and more and more places rolling out Wi-Fi networks, it’s not unreasonable to expect most of the mobile traffic to travel over Wi-Fi networks — so long as customers don’t have to go through a lot of effort and expense to get onto one. Wi-Fi roaming takes care of that on the carrier back end and could end up costing the consumer nothing. The integration of Wi-Fi into a carrier network that roaming would require is already taking place, and represents the future of carrier networks as the mobile web and the web eventually become one.
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