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Thursday, June 20, 2013

WiFi - the coming indoor vs. outdoor divide

I've been speaking to assorted vendors recently about their plans for carrier WiFi, linked to the usual rhetoric about Hotspot 2.0, ANDSF, so-called "seamless" authentication and so forth.

I still contend that a lot of this is nonsense - the mobile operators are only one group in an increasingly complex ecosystem of stakeholders interested in WiFi. The end-users, venue-owners, tenants, fixed/cable ISPs, device vendors, OS suppliers, content players, app providers, employers, advertisers and local government all have "skin in the game" with helping users connect to WiFi. Mobile operators are not "special flowers" among that group - and certainly have no likelihood of enforcing their will about when and where users will connect; much less charge them or subject them to onerous policy controls.

But I'm starting to spot a subtle distinction: indoor vs. outdoor use.

In an indoor environment,  users are used to WiFi being provided by their hotel, cafe, airport, home, office or other sponsor. Increasingly it is free, but perhaps with a small "hoop" to jump through such as watching an advert, or asking a barista for a code. Usually, the access point and backhaul are controlled by the venue or tenant, although a 3rd-party like a wireless ISP might be contracted to provide these. There will be an expectation that any person in that venue - irrespective of which cellular operator(s) they might use - will have access to WiFi, especially as many devices like PCs and tablets are WiFi-only anyway.

This is very different from outdoors.

Outdoors, people are properly "mobile", ie moving-about. They get access from only one provider - their cellular operator. Any other stakeholders like MVNO hosts, network-sharing consortia, site owners and so forth are hidden behind the "Operator X" logo displayed on the phone's screen. People accept and except that different operators will have different coverage, and that they do indeed expect "seamless" handoff from cell to cell.

Outdoors, the HetNet vision makes more sense - macrocell, picocell, femtocell - and, yes, maybe WiFi - owned and operated by the telco, may be used to provide decent data connectivity, as well as telephony and SMS.

While a few cities now have outdoor WiFi provided by a local council or company, that remains rare. People don't have expectations about outdoor WiFi behaviour the same way they do inside a building. A smartphone's WiFi essentially becomes a single-stakeholder environment (or two including the user) in the street, or perhaps a few special locations like aircraft.

In summary;

Indoor WiFi = multi-stakeholder, too complex for the 3GPP/WBA/OMA/GSMA model of operator control and network integration. Limited relevance of ANDSF, carrier-driven Hotspot 2.0, SIM authentication. Largely a UX problem.

Outdoor WiFi = fewer stakeholders, more chance for direct integration & seamlessness. Although complexities where the user could access WiFi as well as 3G/4G metrocells & macrocells. Largely a RAN/policy problem.

The other meta-problem comes from how to know when to switch from carrier-WiFi mode to multi-stakeholder WiFi mode as you enter or exit a venue. Linked to all this is a rather thorny issue of pricing and perceived value.

For many years, the mobile industry has assumed that "nomadic" use of its network was a core part of its proposition, as well as when users are "truly mobile". While that might have been the case for telephony - an indoor mobile call is "worth" as much as an outdoor one - that no longer holds true for data. The assumption (increasingly, although varying by country) is that indoor data is free - provided as an amenity, equivalent to air-conditioning or lavatories. Carrier-provided indoor WiFi will be accepted by end-users as long as it is not charged against data plans, or subject too stricter policy controls than "native" WiFi. This is going to be as much a challenge for billing & charging systems as it is for the network.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Article widely out of line with industry reality... MNO have for the last 5-10 years used Wi-Fi in indoor location (public locations such as airport/stations, etc...) to complement Macro or DAS solution. This continues in almost all markets (not only emerging) even in LTE mature markets like Japan or the US. Advancement in Wi-Fi and 3GPP standard means operators will get more mileage out of Wi-Fi investment while simplifying access to Wi-Fi for selected subs hence boost the take up and maximize the capacity Wi-Fi can bring in an indoor envt (where intereference can be better controlled)

David Chambers said...

I'd certainly agree carrier Wi-Fi is a complex issue and not purely down to technology. But I'd venture there are more clearly delineated market segments than simply indoor vs outdoor. These could include but are not limited to:

1) Enterprise, where the business controls all Wi-Fi access points, determines who can use them and has the carrot of large numbers of mobile subscriptions to negotiate for better indoor coverage/service. Being tied to a single mobile network is quite feasible (although with Wi-Fi potentially available to all).

2) Controlled public venues, such as hotels, bars, attractions etc. where customers are paying to be there. Revenues from other sources can fund free Wi-Fi. Venues can impose/determine where and who installs Wi-Fi kit, limiting interference issues.

3) Open, shared, buildings where an uncontrolled range of Wi-Fi might be installed (almost randomly). Includes multi-tenant properties and apartment blocks. Some areas of Mobile World Congress might be a good example of this. Revenues and QoS can be much more difficult.

4) Outdoor, where (on the whole) people tend to be moving about. This is where cellular technology comes into its own, and has the added complexity and capability to deliver good service. My view is that Wi-Fi, being lower RF power and more autonomous, is better when stationary (e.g. sitting down close to the access point), and so less relevant for outdoor use when on the move.

Regarding whether Wi-Fi = Free, I quite liked a comment heard at last week's Wi-Fi Global Congress. "Wi-Fi should be free, just like water" - allegedly said while at an airport.... where bottled water retails at over $2/litre. I sense that mobile operators want to differentiate on quality, using Wi-Fi where appropriate, and deliver a service akin to bottled water that delivers a clean, virus free, reliable service rather than best effort.

Dean Bubley said...

Anonymous - where telcos (fixed or mobile) have offered public WiFi hotspots, it has (sensibly) been decoupled from their other networks. In particular, MNOs have largely avoided linking either authentication or backhauling traffic through their cores.

Fixed operators, for whom WiFi has *much* greater synergy, have exploited it better - either as an add-on bonus for home broadband users, or as a managed service for venues fitting nicely with their LAN and network integration expertise.

David - Agree with the greater granularity comments. I disagree that enterprises will outsource WiFi to carriers, as most use will still come from non-cellular devices like PCs, printers & tablets & maybe servers. Also the WLAN will be integrated with the LAN for things like security.

I've head this story about "mobile operator WiFi will have better quality" and it sounds like nonsense, *except* in situations where the MNO is the first to fibre-backhaul the WiFi AP in a given location. That might be justified where the AP is colocated with a small cell, but that's likely to be outdoors/public space as few venues will want multiple cells from multiple MNOs being installed.

For complex, multi-AP installations, I highly doubt that CellCo WiFi will be better than anyone else's, as it will be dependent on installing ethernet switches, WiFi controllers & copper cables round the building - something that MNOs are not exactly reknowned for.

Added to that, it seems unlikely that latency will be *reduced* by piping traffic through the core network, rather than pinging it straight to the nearest IXP by the fixed network. Maybe we'll see some of this SIPTO stuff in action but I doubt it.

I think lavatories are a better analogy than water bottles - and I don't need Thames Water to offer me an out-of-home roaming contract for my plumbing.

Dean Bubley said...

Also worth noting that 3rd-party WiFi aggregators / curators already filter for WiFi quality, eg Devicescape & iPass

Last point is that for many indoor use-cases, the "seam" is monetisable and/or valuable in other ways.

Fazal Majid said...

The Israeli proposal to ban carrier WiFi is relevant as well. They sensibly see WiFi as a scarce free resource, which justifies free use of the spectrum, but do not want cellcos to crowd out free usage with paid for traffic, as that is essentially just a way to arbitrage their way out of paying for the true amount of spectrum they need to offer their paid service.