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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

WiFi Offload.... or Onload?

One of the things I get annoyed by regularly is the mis-characterisation of a lot of WiFi use on smartphones / tablets as "offload".

In my view, true "offload" is a term only applicable to data which would otherwise have transited a cellular network, and which has been deliberately pushed to WiFi at a public hotspot, with the intervention of a service provider.

It is very different to "private WiFi" use, where the user has unilaterally decided to connected to a network (for example at home or office) of their own volition, or because a venue or other sponsor has made WiFi access available.

Care also needs to be taken about elasticity - user behaviour may change when on WiFi, even with "proper offload" - if the connection is cheaper or (more often) free/unmetered. At that point, a notional volume of traffic X that might be used on mobile might become 2X or 10X when on WiFi. This could be because of a shift in user perception ("Hmm, yes I will watch Game of Thrones streamed on my phone"), or it could be because an app-developer has created a different experience when connected to WiFi (eg auto-playing video, or enabling downloads of updates).  

[Sidenote: connectivity is not "all the same" - both users and developers make very different decisions when a device is on WiFi vs. 3G/4G. People & apps/OSs are aware of, and care about, the type of network which they're connected to. The notion that it doesn't matter is a core fallacy behind the notion of so-called "seamless" HetNets and integrated infrastructure] 

In other words, only a tiny fraction of smartphone WiFi use can be called "offload" with any reasonable definition. I'd estimate that it's well under 5% globally, and probably under 10% of phones' WiFi usage even on those networks which have extensive operator-driven offload implemented. For tablets, the numbers will be lower still, as the majority are non-cellular and therefore can never "offload", while even mobile-enabled ones are mostly non-activated or primarily used in static locations with private WiFi.

But there is another trend emerging in parallel to "real offload" that will make the numbers even more confusing.

In some cases, people or applications might deliberately switch to cellular from WiFi, for example if the WiFi network is congested, coverage is poor, or there are localised authentication problems. In other words, we will see "offload" from both cellular-to-WiFi AND WiFi-to-cellular. It may be that one direction of this gets referred to as "onload". It may also be that the WiFi-to-cellular onload is larger in volume. This would mostly driven by users' deliberate switching, but perhaps also by WiFi-primary policy clients on devices, for example from services provided by cable operators.

Takeouts from this:
  • Be skeptical of most alleged "WiFi offload" figures - they're usually nonsense
  • Most smartphone WiFi usage is private - traffic that would never have used cellular anwhere
  • Be aware that WiFi/cellular onload happens, as well as cellular/WiFi offload
  • Claims that "nobody cares which network they are on" are either ignorant or duplicitous
  • View all discussions of cellular/WiFi combinations through the lens of WiFi-primary users as well as cellular-primary viewpoints


Steve Shaw said...

Dean -

Good points. I think what's changed over the past 5+ years is the service provider's attitude towards data access and thus Wi-Fi. Initially mobile data was considered something to be 'offloaded' and discarded to keep premium services like voice/messaging clean. But there's value in that data, and customers value an always-best-connected experience. Now Wi-Fi is viewed as a key component of a complete mobile internet strategy - and on-loading traffic to Wi-Fi as well as LTE is the future.

Joe Williams said...
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