Wi-Fi forecasts highlight differentiation, monetization

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Tis the season for industry predictions, and my inbox is filling up with them. Most of the predictions are, well, fairly predictable, but a handful regarding the future of carrier-grade Wi-Fi grabbed my eye, particularly because they relate to news that broke this week.

Analysys Mason wasn't exactly edgy in forecasting that small cells and service-provider Wi-Fi solutions will address mobile operators' needs for dense urban wireless coverage and capacity. It added the caveat that "limited backhaul availability, standards maturity and solution costs will blunt major deployments until late 2013 or early 2014."

What I found particularly interesting was Analysys Mason's statement that operators will begin to consider providing various grades of service over their cellular and Wi-Fi networks "to help differentiate their service and brand as well as support monetization of the wireless experience." That certainly sounds like a driver for the adoption of policy management solutions and helps to explain this week's news that Cisco Systems is getting deep into policy control by acquiring BroadHop.

Juniper Research also expects operators to increasingly engage in Wi-Fi hotspot rollouts to ease pressure on their LTE networks as well as drive up overall usage and user numbers. Juniper specifically mentioned the need for policy control as well. "New standards and initiatives will allow seamless Wi-Fi-LTE technology, assisting operators in improving user experience, applying policy control and enabling operator policy preferences along with secure access. 2013 will witness an added momentum to the scope for a consistent Wi-Fi-LTE roaming experience from a technical and commercial perspective," said Juniper.

It's worth noting that not only is seamless roaming between Wi-Fi and LTE networks a broad industry goal, but numerous players are working to advance Wi-Fi roaming across different service providers' networks, even when they're in different countries. For example, the Interoperability Compliancy Program announced this week by the Wireless Broadband Alliance specifically aims to reduce fragmentation in the way devices connect to and roam onto Wi-Fi networks.

Despite all of the wireless industry enthusiasm for Wi-Fi offloading, not all mobile operators are expected to jump on, or even stay on, the public Wi-Fi bandwagon. Informa Telecoms & Media has taken a bit of a contrarian view, predicting, "Wi-Fi will become a victim of its own success."

Informa envisions a coming shift in operator sentiment away from public Wi-Fi "as it becomes evident that the growing availability of free-to-end-user Wi-Fi devalues the mobile-broadband business model." Some mobile operators will work to better articulate the value of their cellular services, said Informa, while others "will double down on their public Wi-Fi investments to continue to propel the deployment and monetization of Wi-Fi."

Which operators will double down and which won't? I expect it will be intriguing to watch various mobile operators' Wi-Fi strategies evolve over the next 12 months, particularly because new technological solutions, such as Hotspot 2.0 and Passpoint 2.0, will make it so much easier for operators to adopt Wi-Fi and treat it just like any other sibling in their wireless air-interface families.

Policy control solutions are another worthwhile area to keep an eye on. Although they are giving operators lots of options for differentiated pricing of premium services delivered over cellular and/or Wi-Fi, we haven't seen really creative wireless data pricing on a wide scale enter the U.S. marketplace.

Mobile operators may offer unlimited plans vs. shared-data plans, but both of those reek of a one-size-fits-all approach. Loyalty programs, guaranteed QoS offers for consumers, demographically targeted package plans that combine telecommunications services with specific offerings such as social media platforms, or other even more personalized offerings are just not de rigueur here yet.

And that leads to this week's poll question. Please vote on our homepage to let us know if you think 2013 will see the introduction of innovative pricing for premium wireless data services (that applies to cellular and/or Wi-Fi) or will just bring more of the same standardized pricing packages that we've come to expect.--Tammy

P.S. I personally have only one forecast to offer: I predict FierceBroadbandWireless will not grace your email inbox on Dec. 24, 27 or 31 because we will be on a holiday hiatus. We will be back in action and bringing you the latest industry news and views on Jan. 3.