Mobile operators will be adding a lot of broadband capacity to their networks in the coming year, but not all of its coming from their new 4G networks. More than a fifth (22 percent) of new data capacity will come from Wi-Fi networks, according to a Wireless Broadband Alliance survey of its global carrier and vendor members.
Anyone who owns a smartphone or cellular-connected tablet likely already is shunting a good deal of their mobile traffic onto home, work and other publicly accessible Wi-Fi networks. But what the WBA is talking about are carrier-owned and carrier-managed hotspot networks stuck in places where consumers would normally resort to their 3G and 4G connections.
By moving those connections off their cellular networks, carriers can save on network and spectrum costs and ease congestion in high-demand locations. They also gain some breathing room in the constant race to add more capacity. As Wi-Fi becomes a bigger part of their operations, they’ll form part of carriers’ new heterogeneous network architectures.
We’ve already seen some carriers like AT&T invest heavily in hotspots, and many are starting to sign roaming agreements with wireless ISPs like Boingo. But Wi-Fi offload won’t really take off until the infrastructure is in place that allows seamless movement between carrier networks and multiple Wi-Fi networks. The industry has created the template for that infrastructure with the Hotspot 2.0 and Next Generation Hotspot initiatives, but so far there are no commercial networks that use it (Boingo is currently carrying out the first large-scale trial of Hotspot 2.0 and NGH at Chicago’s O’Hare airport).
The WBA’s survey, which was conducted by research group Maravedis-Rethink, found that 78 percent of global carriers plan to have NGH-compatible access points in place by 2015. After that they’re free to strike up myriad roaming agreements. That means a carrier that may have access to only tens of thousands of access points today could easily find itself tapping millions of access points in the future. Maravedis also believes this will spur a huge wave of new hotspot deployments, doubling the number in service to 10.5 million in five years.
Wi-Fi won’t become a major component of the mobile network for some time, but we should see a big ramp up in its use in the next five years. Maravedis and the WBA are predicting that by 2018 Wi-Fi and newer small cell technologies will add an additional 41 percent overall data capacity to their macro networks.