It’s like it is 2013 all over again
Wi-Fi Offload 2.0 – Why a Surge in Interest Right Now?
As a leader in solutions for offloading cellular traffic to Wi-Fi, we have lately experienced a surge in interest globally among communications service providers (CSP). It’s like it is 2013 all over again.
Why this sudden surge in interest for Mobile Data Offloading, aka Wi-Fi Offload? Several trends jointly drive this development in the operator community. This blog post will review some of the most important ones.
Wi-Fi Has Become More Carrier-Class and Provides Additional Spectrum
As discussed in a previous Enea Insights post, Wi-Fi 6 – A Paradigm Shift in Connectivity, Wi-Fi 6 brings deterministic performance to Wi-Fi for the first time.
Now Wi-Fi has the same Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) scheduling mechanisms as cellular networks. If previous Wi-Fi versions were like a cocktail party where everybody (devices) is speaking over each other, Wi-Fi 6 is more like a choir where everyone (devices) communicates in perfect harmony.
The Wi-Fi 6 technology is superior, especially in dense areas with many devices. This is another reason why Wi-Fi 6 is perfect for service provider Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi 6 will keep the latency down and the speed up when the number of users increases. As the diagrams show, these critical parameters for a good user experience quickly deteriorate when you add more users to the same Wi-Fi access point in Wi-Fi 4 and 5.
Wi-Fi 6E, Wi-Fi 6 on 6 GHz, can up to triple the available spectrum for Wi-Fi depending on where your Wi-Fi network is located.
Wi-Fi 7 is around the corner offering latency below 5 ms and theoretical speeds above 30 Gbps, making it a viable alternative for or complement to private 5G. It runs on 2.4, 5, and 6 GHz, and for the first time, it is possible to run traffic on both the 5 and 6 GHz bands to the same client for optimal performance (pending client support, of course).
So, the arguments from the 3GPP advocates that Wi-Fi is not carrier-grade and only best effort simply does not hold anymore. The realization that Cellular and Wi-Fi are not a matter of either, but both have finally caught up with most CSPs. They will need all the bandwidth and spectrum there is to meet the challenges of the future.
The Energy Crisis and 5G Make Indoor Coverage Even Harder
Reaching indoor users with a good-quality signal by deploying just macro-cell base stations has always been challenging. We addressed this issue in the Enea Insights post, The Challenges of Profitable 5G. Already with 4G, 20% of buildings in the United States are struggling with proper indoor coverage. In colder climates, three-pane windows make indoor penetration even harder. Along with the energy crisis, buildings are rapidly being upgraded with triple-glazed windows and more insulation in geographical areas previously not considered.
With 5G running on higher frequencies, indoor penetration will become more demanding than 4G. Building penetration is 100 times worse on 95% of the 5G frequency bands. As a result, 5G will trigger a massive investment in the densification of base stations and indoor 5G coverage deployments. The challenge for mobile operators is that when it comes to speed, 5G is, to a large extent, still a solution looking for a problem. Most users are more than happy with the speeds that 4G brings and may not be prepared to pay extra for 5G.
To keep their margins, mobile operators must find more cost-effective solutions to bring high-capacity indoor coverage for their subscribers, and this is where Wi-Fi comes in.
The good news is that many CSPs have a cellular operation and a fixed operation deploying B2B Wi-Fi. It is just a matter of breaking organizational silos to make the most of these assets. Having one team mounting indoor cellular solutions and another deploying B2B Wi-Fi at the same venue is not the most cost-effective approach.
MVNOs Are Building Their Own 5G Core
A Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) is a cellular operator that provides services by buying network capacity from one or multiple Mobile Network Operators (MNOs).
The value an MVNO brings can range from simply reselling the MNOs service under their name to being a Full or “thick” MVNO handling everything but the radio network. In contrast, a Light or “thin” MVNO does not have its own mobile core and only differentiates from the reseller MVNO by adding SIM management.
With the cloud-native 5G architecture, it has become easier for an MVNO to step up in the value chain and take over more functions from their MNO partner(s).
More cost-effectively than ever, they can become a full (thick) MVNO operating their own mobile core. Some MVNOs in the United States have even moved one step further, becoming Hybrid MVNOs by deploying parts of the radio networks themselves in the CBRS band.
By building their own 5G core, MVNOs will get more control over the quality of service they provide to their customers. They can also offer new services and features tailored to their specific customer needs, which is essential in the highly competitive 5G market.
Many MVNOs, for instance, cable operators, already have a vast Wi-Fi network just waiting to be fully utilized for mobile data offloading, significantly reducing their cost per GB delivered to customers. Consequently, these MVNOs are highly competitive in the market, even towards the mobile network operator (MNO) they partner with.
Cable and Mobile Operators are eating each other’s lunch
As we discussed in our Trends 2023 article Wireless & Wireline Texas hold’em or high-stakes poker? The telecoms industry is in a state of flux. Cable and Mobile Operators in the US are eating each other’s lunch. According to the financial analysts at New Street Research, both companies offer each other’s core products at 30 USD.
This will trigger mobile operators to do a “reverse MVNO deal,” offloading their subscribers to the cable operator’s Wi-Fi footprint to stay competitive.
So, the trend towards 5G and Wi-Fi convergence is evident, which is another reason for the surge in interest in Wi-Fi offload solutions.
The Technology – All Stars Are Finally Aligned for Convergence
Finally, all the technology stars are now perfectly aligned for convergence. We have already discussed the new Wi-Fi 6 and upcoming Wi-Fi 7 technologies. But so much more has happened in our industry. In fact, more has happened only in the last few years than in the previous decade.
The devices have also become smarter when assessing whether to move from the cellular network to Wi-Fi and vice versa.
Hotspot 2.0, nowadays mostly referred to by its certification name Passpoint has been around since 2012. Many have stated that they have a Passpoint network, but most of the time, it has really just been a secure 802.1x network as it resides in one network and is only supported by one service provider. Now with WBA OpenRoaming Passpoint, as it was meant to be, is starting to happen for real. OpenRoaming already has a global network of 3 million+ Wi-Fi access points (November 2023) and counting, making it easier for mobile operators to integrate a third-party Wi-Fi footprint. We believe that OpenRoaming may become the silver bullet for Wi-Fi Offload by neutral host.
As we addressed in our Enea Insights post ATSSS the Future of Wi-Fi and Cellular Convergence, the new Access Traffic Steering, Switching, and Splitting (ATSSS) function in the 3GPP standards may be the ‘Holy Grail’ of mobile data offloading. Still, its complexity means it will likely take years to come to market if the device manufacturers ever think it is a good idea to support ATSSS. However, we have seen other good 3GPP initiatives, such as ANDSF, that have never happened due to the lack of device support.
The bottom line is this. We do not have to wait for ATSSS! The conditions for Wi-Fi offload have improved so much in recent years that we can call it Wi-Fi Offload 2.0.