More than half of all wireless operators plan to make Wi-Fi a critical part of their mobile services, according to a new survey from the Wireless Broadband Alliance. A lot of operators already make plenty of use of Wi-Fi today, but the type of integration between cellular and Wi-Fi networks the WBA is referring to goes much deeper.
Today most operator Wi-Fi is what’s known as “best effort.” Operators either deploy their own hotspots or tap into the networks of partners to deliver a Wi-Fi option to their customers. To get on those networks you typically have to log in to specific access points or use a special Wi-Fi finder app. More often than not, that connection will be unsecured, and then, depending on how congested the hotspot is, there’s no guarantee that you’ll even be able to get any kind of decent bandwidth off your Wi-Fi link.
But according to the survey, which Maravedis conducted on behalf of the WBA, 57 percent of operators now have plans to deploy “carrier grade” Wi-Fi networks. What makes them carrier grade? They make use of new technologies with fancy names like Hotspot 2.0 and Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) that make Wi-Fi networks behave more like cellular networks.
Many of you already have Hotspot 2.0 compliant phones (those that have the Passpoint certification from the Wi-Fi Alliance). Hotspot 2.0 acts as kind of virtual credential that will automatically link to your operator’s Wi-Fi access points with an encrypted connection. NGH takes that managed network idea one step further, allowing an operator to control an access point much like it would a mobile cell. An operator, for instance, could detect if a hotspot is overloaded and choose to keep your phone on the cellular network. NGH would make services like voice-over-Wi-Fi more effective, by more precisely controlling handoff between the two networks. It’s even possible that your phone could make use of both networks simultaneously, sending data upstream through the mobile network while tapping Wi-Fi for downloads.
According to the WBA-Maravedis poll, about 25 percent of all operator hotspots will have these new carrier-grade features by the end of the year. But it might take till the end of the decade before the smartphone Wi-Fi and mobile experiences become nearly seamless.