Industry Voices—Byrne: Wi-Fi continues heavy lifting for cellular carriers, but will it play nice in 5G?

Wireless carriers have had a long and complicated relationship with Wi-Fi. In the early days, many carriers regarded Wi-Fi as a competitive threat to their then-rising data ARPUs. Some carriers went so far as to allow Wi-Fi radios on their handsets. However, with the advent of 3G, Blackberries, and ultimately the iPhone, carriers quickly realized that “hotspot” Wi-Fi coverage provided an effective, if imperfect, offload solution for the droves of customers with lousy service at network chokepoints where network demand often exceeded supply, leading to degraded performance and disgruntled customers. Since that time, growth in “carrier Wi-Fi” has been nothing short of spectacular:  GlobalData estimates that the total installed base of Wi-Fi-enabled devices now exceeds 7 billion, with more than 3 billion annual shipments of Wi-Fi chipsets.

And there are no signs of this growth slowing. If anything, it appears to be accelerating. According to Cisco’s Virtual Network Index (VNI), 60% of data generated from cellular-enabled devices in 2016 was carried over Wi-Fi, and that’s likely to increase to 64% of traffic in 2020. The Wi-Fi phenomenon is spreading into emerging markets, notably India, where upstart carrier Reliance Jio and its Wi-Fi partner Mojo Networks have already deployed 200,000 hotspots and plan to grow the network to a stunning 1.5 million in the next few years.

As it has since its inception, Wi-Fi continues to solve multiple carrier challenges: It provides additional coverage and capacity at low cost, particularly in dense urban environments, with very little capital outlay compared to cellular. Inside the home, Wi-Fi addresses in-building penetration challenges, both for solid data coverage as well as voice. In emerging markets like India where carriers frankly lack the cellular capacity to keep pace with the demand coming from 3G, and increasingly LTE, customers, Wi-Fi is likely to continue to be a workhorse to offload traffic from overtaxed cellular networks.

However, there’s a problem with all of this. Customers don’t want Wi-Fi, they put up with Wi-Fi as a necessary evil to get what they actually want: reliable data coverage and capacity, long battery life and, if it can be provided consistently, high-quality voice service. It’s notoriously finicky. And as those of us who have attended Mobile World Congress know all too well, it can be agonizingly slow. In short, wireless customers are far too aware of their Wi-Fi connectivity which should essentially running seamlessly alongside cellular connectivity.

And let’s be honest: carriers don’t really like Wi-Fi all that much either. The coverage is limited. Voice-over-Wi-Fi is OK but not always great. Dropped network coverages are almost expected. Cellphones too often log onto Wi-Fi networks that provide a poorer experience then the surrounding cellular network. And authentication, despite all the progress the “nexnext-generation hotspot” movement has made, remains clunky, continues to draw battery power as phones look for the “right” network, and remains mostly manual from a customer perspective. And all of these issues usually occur in a wireless carrier’s “no-man’s land,” outside the operator’s direct control.

This all raises interesting questions as to what Wi-Fi’s role will be as wireless carriers evaluate 5G. For some, the advent of License Aware Access (LAA) and MulteFire create an emerging environment in which carriers could enhance coverage on unlicensed bands using familiar LTE technology – enabling performance similar to Wi-Fi but with more seamless network management and access to customers. MulteFire is interesting because it can be used in both, or either, the licensed bands and the unlicensed bands. Like LAA, it also uses LTE communication signaling protocols (more reliable and expected to have 50% greater coverage area than Wi-Fi). However, both LAA and MulteFire are designed to be compatible with Wi-Fi in unlicensed bands, and given the enormous installed base Wi-Fi has already achieved, it seems likely that 5G-oriented solutions are still likely to rely heavily on Wi-Fi whether carriers like it or not.

With that as a reality, it’s surprising that very few if any vendors are devoting much focus to some of the emerging challenges in next-generation architectures. How does Wi-Fi fit into virtualized architectures? What is the role of orchestration between cellular and Wi-Fi architectures? How can AI be applied to address issues around network quality and service assurance? It seems as though all the focus recently on software-defined access may be neglecting a large chunk of the overall network architecture.

To be fair, Wi-Fi vendors continue to make Wi-Fi integrate more effectively into cellular network architectures and to get more reliable performance. At MWC 2018, the Wi-Fi Alliance reported that 20% of Wi-Fi traffic utilized “next-generation” Passpoint hotspots that enable a much more seamless experience and provide cellular carriers greater network assurance capabilities that can monitor network usage and user experience – a longstanding issue with traditional Wi-Fi “offloading.” But Passpoint has been long in development and short on deployment. With Wi-Fi likely to continue to do the heavy lifting for many cellular operators into the 5G era, let’s hope that future integration initiatives can be accelerated so that Wi-Fi can play the “invisible” role it should be playing.

John Byrne is Service Director, Global Telecom Technology & Software, at GlobalData. Follow him on Twitter: @Byrneingman.

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of our editorial staff.