Deutsche Telekom questions WiFi's use as an offload solution

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There are some things you can almost guarantee will happen when you attend a conference called WiFi Offload, and one is that the WiFi access at the venue will be extremely poor to non-existent.

What you might not expect is for the first speaker to raise questions about the actual validity of WiFi as the solution for offloading data from cellular networks, thereby revealing that attitudes over the future uses of WiFi still vary considerably.

Dr. Matthias Siebert, who grapples with mobile access issues within the Europe & Technology group of Deutsche Telekom, is well aware of the future need for further capacity and revenue-generating options and added that traffic is increasingly being decoupled from revenue in the era of flat data rates and escalating data usage.

"We must find a cheap way of dealing with capacity demand," Siebert told delegates in Frankfurt am Main.

Accessing the around 540 MHz of unlicensed WiFi spectrum is one option the German operator has been exploring. Last year it conducted tests in Hamburg and Rotterdam by rolling out "hot zones" that allowed users to access WiFi as an alternative to 3G or LTE.

The results appear to have come as something of a surprise to the operator. When WiFi was switched on, the impact on cellular traffic was practically non-existent. In fact, Siebert noted that cellular traffic actually increased in some cases.

In order to find out why, Deutsche Telekom carried out a "deep dive" analysis of the results and discovered two key things. First, the availability of WiFi "attracts" additional data use as it causes people to behave differently. The knowledge that WiFi is available gives them more confidence that data limits will not be exceeded.

Second, applications and devices also behave differently when WiFi is available, and this is generally due to policies in applications that instruct them to perform only where WiFi is available.

Siebert said Deutsche Telekom will do further studies, and stressed that the operator very much regards WiFi as a complementary technology to 3G and LTE. However, "can WiFi fulfil this promise of relieving cellular networks?" he asked. "That is not shown here. WiFi is not the solution for offload, but it has other interesting features."

Indeed, Deutsche Telekom last year teamed up with crowdsourced WiFi provider Fon to offer the new service WLan To Go. It was reported at the time that Deutsche Telekom already had around 12,000 WiFi hotspots in Germany.

As you might expect, Siebert's presentation provoked a variety of responses in discussions on the sidelines of the event. Some suggested that Deutsche Telekom is an example of an operator that is sticking its head in the sand about WiFi offload because it is afraid of losing control of the network and of users.

Others were more cautious, noting that it was difficult to drawn conclusions without knowing the exact parameters of the test. For example, Deutsche Telekom focused on mobile data use outside rather than inside buildings, and its policies did not appear to have set WiFi as the preferred network when available.

David Nowicki, chief marketing officer at Devicescape, said the key point about WiFi is that it is not only an offload tool; it is also very much a customer experience tool. Indeed many delegates expressed a similar view: Lonnie Schilling, CEO of Birdstep, said WiFi should not merely be regarded as a bearer channel but more as a platform that can help to add value through the collection and analysis of data on consumer behaviour.

"If you have access to WiFi on an extremely wide and deep basis including home and office optimisation and the WiFi is preferred over cellular in public settings, you will reduce the amount of cellular usage," Nowicki said, citing tests Devicescape has carried out on its own operator customers. "If you deploy a subset of this WiFi (the highest quality) and only use WiFi to support cellular and use always-best-connected technology to choose the best network at the best time, then we find that users will use not only a lot more WiFi, but also a lot more cellular data."

Both of these cases are good for the consumer and the operator, Nowicki added. "The consumer can control whether they prefer cost or performance. The operator can control whether they want less data to save cost or more data to increase ARPU."

In the view of Peter White, principal analyst and founder of Rethink Technology Research, mobile operators that do not adopt WiFi offload risk being an endangered species in future. "In future, there will be two types of mobile operator," he said. "Those that own WiFi and those that don't."

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