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Monday, August 08, 2011

The Multi-WiFi future - the need for WiFi Neutrality

I'm increasingly convinced that mobile device / computing users will need sophisticated WiFi connection management tools in the near future. Specifically, ones that allow them to choose between multiple possible accesses in any given location, based on a variety of parameters. I'm also doubtful that anyone will want to allow a specific service provider's software to take control and choose for them - at least not always.

We may see the emergence of "WiFi Neutrality" as an issue, if particular WiFi accesses start to be either blocked or "policy-managed" aggressively. Seams will be neat and well-tailored, rather than connection being "seamless" as the (increasingly discredited) hype would have it.

In general, it is always important to remember that WiFi is not, primarily a "service"technology. It is simply a wireless form of local networking - quite literally, WLAN. While hotspots, metro-WiFi and other manifestations of WiFi are delivered as services - and we are now getting enhanced standards to simplify this - ultimately WiFi will always act in dual "modes": both private (owned) connections, and public (service) ones. As a good guide, no company should be active in WiFi if it doesn't already understand fixed LANs and ethernet more generally.

Certainly, some measure of control is now being given to operators by new standards being proposed. For example, 802.11u which allows WiFi APs to "advertise" certain capabilities and status, beyond the simple SSIDs (network names) of today. Coupled with 3GPP's Access Network Decision and Selection Function (ANDSF), there is certainly a move by which operators could effectively push users (or their devices) towards particular WiFi networks, in a similar way to roaming steering today.

Indeed, there is a school of thought that we are moving towards an operator-controlled world of future WiFi networks - with suggestions that users should just allow their devices to be kept automatically "on-net" within their carrier's own "safe" WiFi domain, or those of its partners.

The implicit (and almost always unstated) Faustian pact here is the user should willingly trade flexibility of WiFi choice, for the convenience of operator-driven connectivity - with all the cost and policy side-effects that may entail. The argument often draws heavily on analogies with international roaming - who wants to manually select their visited network from an obscure menu on your handset, with uncertain cost implications?

I believe that the analogy is deeply flawed. Roaming certainly has an important role to play in WiFi connectivity, but largely as a good mechanism for authentication and billing/settlement model, but with a much greater level of user intervention and awareness than is currently the case in cellular.

In cellular networks, it can reasonably be assumed that the "on-net" or preferred-partner roaming option will be the cheapest (or perhaps, least-egregiously expensive). Because of the way that data-roaming and the wholesale market is constructed (with all data routed back via your home provider), the likelihood is that competing "visited" operators will charge a fortune to your home operator, which then gets passed onto you. Data roaming is almost never free, except if you've signed up to some special regional cooperative plan.

Almost exactly the opposite is true in WiFi. Because most WiFi "breaks out" locally to the public Internet, you pay the same price as local users - and it's often free. The chances are quite high that "roamed" WiFi may well be more expensive than the default local choice.

For example, imagine going to a hotel for a conference. The hotspot may well be roam-able, and perhaps cheaper than the rip-off "rack rate" of €15 a day via an operator partnership. But it's still unlikely to be an option you'd prefer to use, compared with the freebie conference-delegate code provided by your event hosts. In such a circumstance you'd feel justly aggrieved if you got home to be presented with a bill.

There are numerous other situations where there will be multiple usable WiFi options, with different capabilities, prices and even brand affiliations. I visited a pub recently that had a Heineken-sponsored SSID, as well as the pub's own WiFi. It's quite possible to imagine that model being extended to promotions and added-value applications. Being locked-out of specific providers' access will be a fast route to customer dissatisfaction and churn. And because WiFi uses unlicenced spectrum, it's quite possible that regulators will take a dim view of excessive controls enforced by particular companies.

At the moment, this has yet to become a huge issue: this is merely a prediction of the future, but in my view a quite probable and realistic one. Operators and vendors should start making commitments today that future "seamless" WiFi offload and onload infrastructures will not contravene a wider expectation of "WiFi Neutrality".

Meanwhile, device vendors and specialist software providers should aggressively look for options for optimised user experience in managing multi-WiFi contexts. Investors should also look at those startups and innovators that can exploit the new standards, whilst putting neutrality and user-control front and centre.

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Chris Hogg said...


On the bit about roaming selection, I think the EU announced recently that they would like to introduce competition in provision of roaming services - with end users able to have a "home" contract and a separate "roaming" deal. That should ensure that competing "visited networks" may be cheaper. Regarding your overall point I think there will be a balance between customers that want everything managed (and may pay a premium) and those that want flexibility. I suspect though that the premium that could be charged will get smaller as competition increases, user managed WiFi becomes easier and some of the new network technologies you mention get deployed.

Martin Geddes said...

Wildcard is whether other players in the ecosystem - handset vendors in particular - will start to shop around on behalf of their users and offer integrated device + access deals that bypass the operator retail structure entirely (cf Apple Stores). Depends on how greedy operators are - rip-off 1000x margins may end up costing them the whole business.