Wi-Fi is more important than ever, but standards are lacking

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The need for operators to add network capacity is becoming ever more critical as mobile broadband becomes a decisive part of their revenues. Adding urgency to this are signs that mobile data pricing is starting to stabilise and provide some much needed support to offset the ongoing decline in voice revenues in many European countries.

While HSPA+ and LTE will help significantly in serving this upsurge in data traffic, Wi-Fi is fast becoming a key component in the complex technology mix needed to meet customer expectations. This realisation has promoted the GSMA and Wireless Broadband Alliance to announce their collaboration on an initiative aimed at simplifying Wi-Fi hotspot access for smartphones and tablets users.

"Not momentous" and "somewhat behind the curve" could be an initial reaction to this move, but it might start to bring some consistency in the way Wi-Fi-enabled mobile devices attach to Wi-Fi networks. Of more importance is that data roaming should become near seamless if the SIM card within the mobile device is adopted for authentication and billing--as now seems more likely.

But the unanswered question is when this might come to fruition? (The new framework may be ready for commercial use by early 2013.)

Integrating Wi-Fi into cellular networks, in some form or other, has been under discussion for nearly 10 years. The 3GPP proposed some interworking standards in 2003, and other work was conducted by the Internet Engineering Task Force and Wi-Fi Alliance (with its WISPr protocol)--and undoubtedly many others, but with little real advancement.

Perhaps this lack of progress could be due to the egotistical attitude from the cellular community believing that Wi-Fi was and is a somewhat inferior wireless technology suitable only for simple and menial tasks.

But times are changing, and customers are adopting Wi-Fi as never before and want an end to the ridiculous situation of having to understand when and how to use cellular or Wi-Fi for mobile data.

One company that has rapidly dropped any pretence over the benefits of Wi-Fi is Ericsson, as seen with its pending acquisition of BelAir Networks, a developer of technology aimed at Wi-Fi/cellular switching. Albeit that mobile operators have been deploying Wi-Fi hotspots for some years, these networks have not been integrated into their macro networks, which is where Ericsson believes it has a role to play.

Ericsson claims it will be integrating Wi-Fi into some of its small-cell cellular products and will have the capability to switch users seamlessly to HSPA+ as they move out of range of Wi-Fi coverage.

However, Thomas Norén, head of Ericsson's product area radio division, admits that there is a need to agree standards to manage the handover between Wi-Fi and cellular technologies. "But the challenge with Wi-Fi is that many nodes need to be deployed to provide comprehensive coverage. Operators need to understand the challenges involved with deploying dense Wi-Fi networks and maintaining them," he told Fierce Wireless:Europe. "There is a need to have carrier-grade access points, operational and maintenance systems and support and service staff--this is the biggest issue."

So, while Wi-Fi seems set to become an increasingly vital player in the wireless arsenal for mobile operators, the technology challenges remain severe and the standardisation timetables vague.--Paul