Wi-Fi in a ‘Carrier’ class of its own

Wi-Fi in a ‘Carrier’ class of its own

Technology News |
By eeNews Europe

Today’s subscribers demand seamless wireless data access, and operators – both mobile and fixed line – are under pressure to meet this insatiable demand. Mobile network operators have responded to this surge in demand by investing in LTE network technology to deliver high-speed broadband, but the rollout of LTE services continues to be costly, and thus, gradual in many parts of the world. In order to maintain a judicious pace of network expansion while still meeting subscriber expectations, operators are turning to Wi-Fi to accommodate the huge surge in data traffic on their networks. They have discovered that Wi-Fi is not just a secondary channel to offload data traffic, it has become integral to their network infrastructure.

Wi-Fi provides an attractive option to operators looking to cost-effectively scale the capacity, efficiency and footprint of their existing networks. Where Wi-Fi was once seen as a competing technology to cellular, it is now an essential part of an operator’s mobile offering. Tier one operators are now looking to leverage smart, carrier-class Wi-Fi solutions to deploy a complete, end-to-end, managed wireless infrastructure that provides reliable mobile data access.

Wi-Fi, of course, didn’t begin life as a carrier technology. It was originally conceived as primarily a consumer and enterprise focused Internet access technology, restricted to indoor, high-density locations. Mobile operators were originally reluctant to adopt Wi-Fi, as it used unlicensed spectrum, which was looked upon as difficult to manage and unreliable. This was an alien concept for MNOs that had built their businesses on (and have spent billions of dollars on) licensed spectrum, over which they had total ownership and control. But the perception of Wi-Fi has changed. This is largely due to the fact that Wi-Fi solutions are now comprised of highly efficient and focused access points (APs) and network management software and hardware, much of which supports a new protocol called Hotspot 2.0 Release 2. This ensures the delivery of reliable, carrier-class Wi-Fi that seamlessly integrates with existing cellular networks.

There is no doubt that Wi-Fi has undergone a major transformation. What was once regarded as a risky option by carriers has now become a cornerstone network technology. In fact, last year, over 80% of smartphone traffic was carried over Wi-Fi (Smartphone, Tablet Usage trends, 2014, Ovum).

So how did Wi-Fi become so important to the operators? To fully understand this we should first examine exactly what a carrier class Wi-Fi network is comprised of and what it can deliver for the operators.

Improved data network coverage

Making sure that users can pick up a strong signal from anywhere in the coverage area – that’s the epitome of what it means to be carrier class. Carrier class Wi-Fi offers cutting-edge technology like adaptive antennas embedded in access points to guarantee the strongest possible signal whilst minimising radio frequency (RF) interference.

Staying connected

Ensuring that subscribers remain connected is an integral part of what carrier class Wi-Fi can help deliver. This has traditionally required user intervention, but Hotspot 2.0 Release 2 empowers operators to automate the manual process of getting people connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot. This enables users to seamlessly ‘roam’ on and between Wi-Fi hotspots. Hotspot 2.0 achieves this through a revolutionary overhaul of the Wi-Fi connection procedure, automating the manual configuration and decision-making process as well as ensuring a secure, reliable connection.

Unlimited scalability

Finally, carrier class Wi-Fi networks must be able to scale to hundreds of thousands of access points, if required, mirroring the scale of existing cellular networks. This requires a wireless LAN (WLAN) management platform that has the requisite scalability (e.g., capable of to managing up to 10,000 access points). Ideally, these platforms should be virtualised, making it possible to support almost unlimited scaling.

It’s clear these carrier class Wi-Fi features like massive scalability and virtualization (e.g., Network Functions Virtualization) are helping to drive adoption with operators.

Supporting 4G rollout

Carrier class Wi-Fi networks are now beginning to serve a much more strategic purpose, with operators assessing the long term role for Wi-Fi as a complement to 4G/LTE.

Wi-Fi was initially designed for relatively low mobility, but high capacity environments. Conversely, LTE and other licensed cellular technologies offer macro coverage and relatively high mobility but at a much higher cost. A complementary solution is achieved when the two technologies are deployed in tandem. With no spectrum licenses and no long lead times or complex configuration, Wi-Fi technology delivers reliable indoor and outdoor broadband services at a fraction of the cost and complexity of conventional macro alternatives.

Operators are now starting to integrate carrier class Wi-Fi into LTE small cells. By deploying small cells within their macro networks, it gives operators the ability to create more efficient heterogeneous network services that allow them to more quickly and easily scale capacity and coverage as needed.

Installing a Wi-Fi infrastructure is the first step in securing physical locations that allow mobile operators to introduce Wi-Fi and small cell LTE solutions. Operators who have suitable locations for Wi-Fi offload are not only solving the short term immediate capacity needs of the network, they are also ensuring a much easier transition to small cell LTE and solidifying their longer term strategic needs for the future.

Wi-Fi finds its voice

With LTE and Wi-Fi integration underway, operators have also discovered other uses cases for Wi-Fi apart from data offload, meaning there is now even an opportunity to monetize Wi-Fi. Many operators have recently launched Wi-Fi calling services. Wi-Fi calling is the ability to place a cellular call using a cellular voice stack in a smartphone (in this case LTE) over a Wi-Fi network, and then terminating it on the IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) complex in the mobile network operator’s data centre. This is very different from over-the-top services like Skype because it is native to the smartphone (not a third party application) and it connects in exactly the same way that a traditional voice call would work. It also supports seamless network handoff as the user moves between Wi-Fi and LTE coverage areas. This has opened up the potential to rollout new voice and video calling services for domestic markets and even for international roaming services.

The key to enabling a true Wi-Fi calling service is again, making use of a smart carrier class Wi-Fi network infrastructure. To address some of the issues that could hinder good Wi-Fi calling, operators need to include adaptive antenna technology, which enables operators to deliver a strong signal to the user’s device in almost any situation. Wi-Fi calling solutions should also include mechanisms that prioritise voice traffic, even when it’s encrypted. Additionally, they must be capable of enabling fast handoff to keep users talking while they move around in the coverage area; and call admission control to limit the load of data being transferred across the network.

With these carrier class features in place, a great deal of smartphone voice traffic will be able move over to Wi-Fi.
The Extra Mile

Carrier class Wi-Fi has come of age due to a range of improvements to the technology, as well as the competitive advantages that it offers operators. Smart carrier class Wi-Fi is in now an integral, strategic technology for operators who are looking to provide data where it’s needed and whenever it’s needed, such as urban environments, which are typically challenging coverage areas from a cellular radio perspective.

The applications of carrier class Wi-Fi are only truly realised when operators use Wi-Fi that meets users’ expectations in terms of quality and service. The operators that integrate smart carrier class Wi-Fi into their network offerings will be at a distinct competitive advantage to those who remain ignorant to its capabilities.

Steve Hratko, Director of Service
Provider Marketing at Ruckus Wireless.

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