During the last couple of weeks, there has been much debate about what the “hot topics” will be at Mobile World Congress. While, as usual, much of the hype and excitement has been around the latest and greatest smartphones which are likely to be showcased by companies such as Nokia, LG, HTC and the newly-renamed Sony Mobile, the role of Wi-Fi in the operator network certainly appears to be another likely candidate.
The last few weeks have seen some interesting movements in this space, with Alcatel-Lucent announcing the addition of Wi-Fi capabilities to its lightRadio portfolio, and so-far unconfirmed reports that Ericsson is in talks to acquire BelAir networks. And with Cisco Systems recently forecasting an 18-fold growth in mobile data by 2016, it is unsurprising that operators are reviewing all of the options open to them to serve subscribers.
Of course, looking to Wi-Fi, either as a way to offload traffic from the cellular network, or as a value-add for more lucrative subscribers, is not new. In recent months, operators such as SKT have talked up the potential for Wi-Fi alongside 3G and LTE services, and Japan’s KDDI is also a strong supporter of the technology.
The big change for these operators and others is that Wi-Fi is now increasingly being seen as an integral part of an operator’s core connectivity armoury, rather than a bolt-on which can be used to serve specific niches.
And why not? After all, mobile subscribers rarely commit to a network technology for ideological reasons. Decisions are made based on a number of criteria including price, coverage, and handset availability – and Wi-Fi can certainly help out on several of these counts.
Certainly the fact that Wi-Fi is ubiquitous among devices such as smartphones and tablets means that a large proportion of the most data-heavy subscribers are already in a position to use it.
Operators also stand to benefit in less tangible ways, for example through improved subscriber retention, if they are able to position themselves as the best connectivity provider for mobile data users. While many of these customers will already be using non-operator Wi-Fi or less integrated options, the added convenience and security of an integrated package may well prove appealing.
And there are other opportunities as well: access to Wi-Fi networks for roaming users will provide operators with a way to make money from subscribers who are all too aware of the dangers of “bill shock,” and whose default position is “data off” when travelling. The opportunity to serve customers with devices such as tablets, which often do not contain integrated mobile broadband, is also appealing.
One potential sticking point, however, is price. Integrating Wi-Fi with an operator network is not going to be cheap, especially if subscribers are to be offered similar levels of utility when accessing services via Wi-Fi. But also, through its use in the home and office, and through the penetration of hotspots in coffee shops and airports, customers are also used to Wi-Fi being low cost or, in many cases, free of charge.
So while Wi-Fi may be an important addition to the operator connectivity portfolio, its implementation is not without challenges. It will be interesting to see what the great and the good have to say next week.
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members