New roaming standards to fuel growth in carrier Wi-Fi

Major mobile operators plan on turning to Wi-Fi to add more than a fifth of additional data capacity to their networks in 2013 and 2014, according to study. And new standards make it even easier for subscribers to access these networks.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read

Major mobile operators around the world say they expect to rely on Wi-Fi more than ever in the next few years to keep their data networks free from congestion. And new standards that make it easier for operators' subscribers to use each other's Wi-Fi networks are helping accelerate Wi-Fi offload adoption, according to a report released Wednesday by the Wireless Broadband Alliance.

As wireless subscribers continue to use more data services to stream audio and video, check social networking sites and use GPS navigation services as well as other Net-connected apps, major wireless operators say they are turning to Wi-Fi as a way to help offload some of that traffic from their traditional cellular networks.

How much traffic do they plan to shunt over to Wi-Fi? According to a new survey commissioned by the Wireless Broadband Alliance trade group, carriers around the globe say that about 22 percent of all additional data capacity added to their networks during 2013-2014 will come from Wi-Fi offload. By 2018, Wi-Fi offload is predicted to contribute 20 percent of additional mobile data capacity, plus another 21 percent is expected to come from small cells with integrated Wi-Fi.

The results of this survey, which elicited responses from 197 service providers, half of whom included mobile or fixed operators, as well as wireless ISPs and pure-play Wi-Fi providers, show how important Wi-Fi has become in helping these companies keep up with the growing demand for data from their subscribers.

The use of Wi-Fi and small cell technology to offload data traffic from traditional cellular networks has been a growing trend. On average, offloaded data traffic accounts for about 20 percent of a carrier's total data traffic, according to the survey. In dense usage areas, such as cafes or transit hubs, about 80 percent of a carrier's data traffic is offloaded to Wi-Fi or small cells, according to the report. Within homes and businesses offload levels are 50 percent to 60 percent.

The report also indicates that mobile operators are more confident about investing in Wi-Fi as a way to supplement their cellular networks than they were a year ago. As a result, carriers are increasing hotspot deployments. The renewed confidence has been spurred in part by the emergence of more Wi-Fi roaming agreements among carriers.

Roaming is key to increasing Wi-Fi roll-out

Maravedis-Rethink, which conducted the survey for the Wireless Broadband Alliance, has forecast that the number of hotspots deployed globally by mobile operators will increase to 10.5 million in 2018, up from 5.2 million in 2012. But it's difficult for providers to offer enough Wi-Fi coverage on their own to make the business case for deploying these networks. And in the wireless market, network coverage is king. This is where roaming agreements are essential for establishing a business case for using Wi-Fi as an offload network technology.

According to the survey, of the operators who have already established roaming agreements, 10 percent have access to more than 1 million Wi-Fi hotspots through those agreements. As the process of striking roaming agreements is simplified and standardized, mobile operators are expected to rapidly increase the number of agreements they have, which will expand coverage.

The Next Generation Hotspot initiative led by the Wi-Fi Broadband Alliance, is playing a key role in providing a standardized way for operators to roam. Earlier this year, the NGH roaming standards were tested by some of the biggest wireless operators in the world, including AT&T, T-Mobile, China Mobile, BT, NTT DoCoMo and Orange.

Equipment used to make this integration happen is already being deployed by some operators. And according to the survey 78 percent of carriers planning to deploy an NHG network will do so by the end of 2015. Boingo Wireless has already begun launching its first NGH network at Chicago O'Hare Airport. And others are also deploying the standard in other places.

"Public Wi-Fi is steadily maturing and is now being embraced by an ever growing number of operators," Shrikant Shenwai, CEO of the Wireless Broadband Alliance, said in a press release. "This research shows an increasingly positive attitude towards public Wi-Fi which is largely thanks to the strength of the ecosystem and the technical and commercial progress to make NGH deployments possible."

Finding ways to use Wi-Fi and small cell technology to offload networks is key as many countries, including the U.S. and nations in Europe and Asia run out of licensed wireless spectrum that can be used to expand mobile networks. In the U.S. the Federal Communications Commission is preparing rules for auctions that will reclaim wireless spectrum used by the broadcast TV industry. Regulatory bodies, such as the European Commission and the FCC, see unlicensed Wi-Fi as an important part of helping solve the spectrum shortage.

In August, the European Commission recommended that more spectrum be set aside for Wi-Fi to ease congestion on traditional cellular networks. And in the U.S., the FCC has been looking at freeing up additional wireless spectrum to be used for unlicensed purposes like Wi-Fi.