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Are Wi-Fi and 4G LTE on a collision course?

The way Wi-Fi technology has grown over the last two decades is nothing short of phenomenal. What began as a simple way to wirelessly network isolated clusters of home or business infrastructure within a limited area has become an essential component of wireless communications.

From the days of ‘warchalking’, [1] when users identified open Wi-Fi access points (a.k.a. hotspots), to today’s active advertising of Wi-Fi availability, consumers have grown to expect a Wi-Fi signal nearly everywhere they go. They expect not only ubiquitous but, frequently, also free Wi-Fi access. Once, considered a threat to network security, enterprises often shunned the technology. But the needs of workforce mobility, cloud computing and virtual desktop applications have made high-performance, secure Wi-Fi networks indispensable.

Mobile devices have evolved in a similar manner. From cellular network, voice-only devices, they have become multi-mode smartphones that support high-definition streaming video, Voice over IP, Internet browsing and interactive gaming. The arrival of Wi-Fi capability in these devices a little over a decade ago[2] heralded the age of explosive growth in data consumption – one where Wi-Fi would complement the macro cellular network for connectivity and throughput.

Today, two trends in Wi-Fi technology are setting a direct collision course with cellular technologies such as LTE. The first is the advent of ‘carrier-grade’ Wi-Fi. What has been until today ‘best-effort’ Wi-Fi now has the attributes of cellular technology, such as security, transparent registration, higher availability and improved quality of service. The second is the development of interoperability. Cellular and Wi-Fi are now capable of handing over call and data sessions seamlessly as well as authenticating and automatically billing customers.

The evolution of Wi-Fi technology has implications — strategic and operational — across the industry, for both mobile and cable operators. Strategically, cable operators are using Wi-Fi as a way to enter the mobile space. Cablevision’s January 2015 announcement of Freewheel,[3] a mobile-phone service based on Wi-Fi, is one example of a cable operator’s challenge to mobile operators. Similarly, Comcast and Liberty Global formed a global Wi-Fi roaming agreement[4] that’s akin to roaming agreements between mobile operators.

Such agreements likely will take a bite out of mobile operators’ roaming revenue streams. Mobile operators, though, are beginning to think about Wi-Fi as more than just a tool for offloading data traffic. T-Mobile USA’s Wi-Fi calling capability is an example of Wi-Fi going beyond offloading data and extending farther into the full suite of mobility services. And, Sprint offers Wi-Fi calling from overseas locations as a way to lure customers who incur high international roaming charges.[5]

Operationally, the implications of Wi-Fi’s evolution include rethinking both the commercial and the technical areas. On the commercial side, considerations include products and services offered, pricing plans, the customer experience on Wi-Fi vs. cellular and strategy for supporting consumers across multiple networks. On the technical side, elements include coordinating the building of the Wi-Fi and cellular network, managing and operating the networks and developing an overall technology road map. Spectrum strategy is another area with myriad implications. Evaluating the need for licensed spectrum is influenced by the increasingly strong capabilities of Wi-Fi because of how much spectrum an operator will buy as opposed to using techniques for offloading onto ‘free’ spectrum. Furthering the debate is the potential use of unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum for LTE service, sometimes called LTE-U or Licence Assisted Access (LAA).[6] The debate is pitting the Wi-Fi standards bodies against the cellular standards bodies.

Wi-Fi continues to pose one challenge to all those that deploy, manage and rely on it: how to make money on it. Other than pay-per-use models in captive hospitality and transportation settings, the willingness to pay for best-effort Wi-Fi has been low because, perceiving its quality and reliability to be low, consumers expect the service to be available for free. The emergence of carrier-grade Wi-Fi offers the industry an opportunity to differentiate this Wi-Fi service from its predecessor and claim value for the improvements it brings.