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Wi-Fi Offload: The Technology That Came in From the Cold
Claus Hetting | Contributing Analyst

Are Wi-Fi and mobile really converging? Only a couple a years ago most mobile industry executives would sneer at the prospect of lowly Wi-Fi becoming a technology of choice for mobile operators. Since then many of the same executives have had to endure nothing less than a paradigm shift: With modular Wi-Fi access points being popped into many new small cell 3G or Long Term Evolution (LTE) base station products, the use of Wi-Fi is coming into the mainstream.

But, of course, opinions vary. While some operators and vendors are positively excited about the new opportunities that Wi-Fi may promote, others see Wi-Fi offload as a dire necessity for mobile networks hovering on the brink of collapse from smartphone traffic overload: "Wi-Fi should be the default for mobile users because smartphones and tablets are killing cellular networks," said Wang Jianzhou, the former CEO of China Mobile Ltd. (NYSE: CHL).

Today, Mr. Jianzhou's impassioned plea is creeping closer to reality. There is no escaping the fact that the worlds of Wi-Fi and mobile broadband are coming together in earnest. Vendors, operators and industry bodies all agree: In a couple years, the average user will neither know nor care what kind of network his or her smartphone or tablet uses.

The gleaming end goal and final vision for Wi-Fi offload on both the IEEE and the 3GPP sides is one of complete seamlessness of traffic, control and services. Devices will move freely between licensed 3G/LTE and Wi-Fi bands. New intelligent core networks will find the best way to distribute and control traffic streams. Never again will smartphone Wi-Fi users need to battle with typing in passwords, responding to emails and fidgeting with credit cards.

So what is the benefit? As the new Heavy Reading 4G/LTE Insider, "Wi-Fi Offload: Benefits Trump Costs for Mobile Operators," explains, Wi-Fi networks are available at a fraction of the cost of LTE and 3G, and arguably Wi-Fi access points may prove as effective as 3G or LTE small cells in relieving the impending capacity crunch. Add to this a whopping 600 MHz of unlicensed spectrum (compare this to the usual 20 or 40 MHz of licensed spectrum held by most mobile carriers) and Wi-Fi offload has all the hallmarks of no-brainer business decision.

So why is Wi-Fi offload not already here? Sadly, seamless Wi-Fi offload is possibly one of the most perplexing technology puzzles ever. "Seamlessness is a technical challenge in at least five dimensions," says Gerardo Giaretta, senior staff engineer at Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM). The first dimension authenticating SIM-enabled devices is already a reality on a few networks including that of Telia Sweden. But a multitude of challenges remain including aligning the disparate protocols, architectures and standards of the 3GPP-based and Wi-Fi industries.

Still the technical issues will eventually be resolved. Meanwhile, mobile carriers and the Wi-Fi industry in general including a slew of Wi-Fi service providers may need to come up with new ways of working together in order that everyone may benefit. New business models for the inclusion of seamless Wi-Fi into mobile service packages will likely be required. And perhaps a few major carriers will be tempted or even advised to tread the acquisition trail.

Claus Hetting, Contributing Analyst, Heavy Reading 4G/LTE Insider

This report,"Wi-Fi Offload: Benefits Trump Costs for Mobile Operators," is available as part of an annual subscription (6 issues per year) to Heavy Reading 4G/LTE Insider, priced at $1,595. Individual reports are available for $900. To subscribe, please visit: www.heavyreading.com/4glte.