WiFi starts playing a key role in telecoms

Last year we reported on the fact that WiFi had become the quiet achiever in the telecoms industry and the status of that technology is continuing to improve.

This is what we wrote last year:

Around the world WiFi has established itself as the quiet achiever and in 2010 there is evidence emerging that the use of WiFi hotspots is on the rise due to increasing popularity with smartphone users. WiFi offers a faster, and in some cases cheaper, alternative for accessing mobile broadband services rather than via traditional mobile networks. The recent introduction of Wi-Fi Direct has also increased the competition between it and another short-range wireless technology – Bluetooth. In the midst of short-range wireless technologies there is also Ultra-Wideband (UWB) which has struggled due to competition and lack of applications. UWB chip manufacturers have now turned their attention to the wireless HD connectivity sector.

A range of new ‘phone’ apps on smartphones is diverting telephone traffic away from the mobile networks towards internet-based networks, with applications such as Skype. While this will not immediately affect the local market, people are becoming more aware of the option of WiFi to make long-distance calls using their smartphones – all on top of the broader mobile broadband explosion.

This is, of course, creating a whole new range of opportunities in the WiFi market, with more sophisticated WiFi equipment becoming available, delivering amazing reach and quality. In a recent discussion with Ruckus Wireless they told me about their WiFi Access Points.

With their gateway technology operators can cleanly integrate, handle and manage WiFi traffic just as they do their cellular data traffic, using the core network systems already in place to provide more broadband capacity, coverage and a seamless experience to subscribers.

Up until now operators have deployed WiFi opportunistically and separately from their mobile cellular network. With these access points WiFi becomes another wireless onramp to operators’ wireless infrastructure that complements existing 3G and future 4G wireless access.

As mentioned above, smartphone users want faster, more ubiquitous and reliable connectivity, while operators are looking to squeeze every last bit of capacity out of their cellular networks. As a result smarter WiFi is needed so that it can take on a more strategic role as part of the overall mobile network infrastructure. Ultimately users simply want the fastest and most reliable wireless connection they can get.

This is what one of my more technically-minded colleagues Brough Turner, founder of netBlazr Inc told me about this technology. The short, slightly technical but hopefully understandable, summary he gave me of this new technology is that it is an 802.11n WiFi access point (AP) with a number of directional antenna elements (pointing in different directions).

Depending on where the client device is, it selects the antenna elements that give the best performance for that direction.  This is a legal way to get the equivalent of 4x transmit power and 4x receiver sensitivity. (Specifically they achieve up to 9 dBi antenna gain versus the typical dipole antenna which has 2.15 dBi of antenna gain for a net gain of ~6 dB).

Manufacturers can make different antenna element selections for each 802.11 frame (in WiFi, each frame carries up to 2346 bytes of payload) so that if there are multiple clients connected to the AP each client gets the benefit of talking to an AP with a directional antenna matched to that client’s location.

This is not a new idea.  There was a company called Vivato (2002-2007) that did this with 802.11g, but they were ahead of their time (and at $15,000 their AP cost way too much).  The idea itself is called beam steering by antenna element selection and it dates back to at least the 1920s.

But it looks as though the market is slowly but surely getting ready for these more sophisticated Wi Fi products. This level of sophistication is emerging in enterprise and carrier markets, but it will, of course, eventually find its way into the hotspot market, where it will become the critical hub for the rapidly increasing home network market.

It will be interesting to see how these new developments impact on the business models of the mobile operators – who controls the customer as WiFi becomes pervasive. While WiFi technology might assist them in managing their network better and more efficiently, it also has the ‘free’ or at least ‘very cheap’ label attached to it.

One option for mobile operators is to be the single source for ubiquitous connectivity – that is, OEM access to multiple WiFi networks – and make the log-in seamless.

The operators could also consider alternative technical approaches for integrating WiFi access with 3G/4G networks. Brough’s impression here is that some operators think they need to bring all the traffic through their expensive core networks to leverage all their existing control infrastructure.  They probably only need to deal with the minimum to create a seamless use experience and they would save money by leaving the actual traffic off their core networks.

These new developments in WiFi present both challenges and opportunities. Will the operators use it to embrace the opportunities or will they throw up the defence barriers? As indicated above, WiFi apps are also going to undermine telephony income, which is still the major component of most mobile operators’ revenue.

There is no turning back.  Mobile broadband is the only way forward, but that also means that it becomes more and more a commodity product, and eventually this means a far more utilities-based business model.

The rationalisation in some mobile operators’ markets – namely the latest developments in the USA – indicate that there is no room for several competing infrastructures. Competition will increasingly take place over the network. However very few regulators have yet addressed this problem since, under the current regulatory system, fewer players will simply mean higher costs to consumers, less innovation and fewer opportunities for other content and service providers.

Some kind of separation between infrastructure and services is looming.

Paul Budde

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