While wandering through the vast amounts of exhibitors on display at MWC and listening to operators debating the vision for the future, I managed to catch up with the Wireless Broadband Alliance and Ruckus Wireless to gain their insights.
WiFi as a Carrier Voice Service
One of the biggest trends this year has to be WiFi calling. Speaking to Dave Wright, Technical Marketing Engineer at Ruckus Wireless I learned that voice over WiFi (but known in the industry as WiFi calling) has seen aggressive adoption in the US and will continue to grow, especially as it is now supported by iOS 8 and the latest Samsung models. To ensure the high quality of voice to subscribers that is required operators need carrier grade WiFi, which is of course a speciality for Ruckus.
WiFi calling is great proposition for consumers who struggle with patchy or non-consistent signal at home, as they can direct and receive their calls and texts through the WiFi network instead. It also reflects the pressure put on operators to explore new ways to attract and retain their customers by improving their experience, rather than purely seeking out new revenue streams. EE for one has pounced on this, announcing that WiFi Calling will be available on the new Samsung Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge.
Where Does WiFi fit into LTE-U?
With the potential for LTE-Advanced to expand into unlicensed spectrum, often used by WiFi, I asked Bruno Conde Tomas, Program Manager at the Wireless Broadband Alliance what the implications could be. He explained the WBA felt ready to test all solutions that could benefit customer experience, and was sure that there would be a way for LTE and WiFi to “play together nicely”.
Which links to Ruckus’ view that this might eventually mean tying LTE into WiFi. Most of us are aware of LTE-U and LAA standards by now but maybe not the latest from Qualcomm – LWA, or LTE/Wi-Fi link aggregation (because there aren’t enough acronyms in telcos!) Link aggregation brings Wi-Fi access points under control of the LTE network itself, with Qualcomm stating that it is being created as a solution to combat “reliability concerns over using disparate, independent Wi-Fi networks.”
This ties in nicely with Alcatel-Lucent’s announcement at MWC of its ‘Wireless Unified Networks’ strategy – which “blends the upload and download capabilities of Wi-Fi® and cellular technologies to enable higher capacity and give subscribers a more consistent and higher-quality mobile voice, data and video experience in high-traffic or low-signal locations.” According to Alcatel, this approach will allow operators to combine cellular and Wi-Fi networks into one unified wireless network for users whether they are at home, in the office, or outdoors.
As Seamless as Cellular
One thing which does hold back WiFi use, especially in public spaces, is that up until now it hasn’t been as easy and effortless to connect to as mobile broadband. This combined with inconsistent quality may cause users to switch to 3G/4G alternatives. In the age of ubiquitous 4G, WiFi needs to address this to remain relevant outside the home. Therefore it’s no surprise the biggest story from the Wireless Broadband Alliance is the successful evolution of passport certification and Next Generation Hotspot (NGH).
Ratified by the WiFi Alliance in October, NGH in now in phase 3 trials which is focused on operator policies for Wi-Fi networks and automatic online signup as featured in Passpoint release 2 and with new location based services and advanced policy management. The benefits of offloading mobile broadband traffic through NGH are clear and it a huge step towards seamless interoperability across networks, technologies and devices.
Bruno from the WBA told me that this enables every single MWC attendee to seamlessly and securely connect to WiFi without login details or passwords (if their carrier was involved). So far 35 global carriers are involved and the large-scale, live showcase at MWC was proof that WiFi is well on its way in becoming as seamless as cellular. Now that passpoint technology has proven its viability, Bruno says, it is simply a matter of time before we see further deployment from operators.
Ruckus agreed with this, as Dave Wright told me that mobile and cable operators have been hotly anticipating the release of hotspot 2.0, and they expect some significant deployments from cable companies who haven’t already deployed by the end of this year or early 2016. Ruckus have already had several deployments, with operators such as Time Warner Cable in the US and Orange in Europe.
Mobile operators too have been waiting for the release so they can begin to leverage existing WiFi footprints, offering it to their subscribers as an additional benefit through roaming partners.
WiFi at BBWF
WiFi has always had a place at Broadband World Forum but given the heightened interest in these strategies and the evolution of convergence across all networks, we will be dedicating an entire day within the conference to explore “WiFi’s Role in Seamless Connectivity”.
You can download our preview brochure for an agenda-at-a-glance and look out for the full programme to be released soon!