Smith Micro expanding the reach of its client-centric offloading solution

Smith Micro Software says its client-centric middleware for cellular network offloading is picking up traction. Not only will it eventually be pre-installed on devices destined for Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S), but other operators are also looking closely at the company's offloading solution.

Smith Micro and Sprint announced a partnership in January, whereby Sprint is using Smith Micro's Mobile Network Director device middleware on its customers' handsets "to help them manage data congestion issues and also make sure they can maintain one of their key differentiators, which is being able to offer unlimited data service," said Carla Fitzgerald, vice president of marketing at Smith Micro.

The middleware enables Sprint to adjust network selection on subscribers' devices as they move between coverage areas, dynamically connecting them to Sprint's 3G and WiMAX networks or to Wi-Fi as appropriate.

Mobile Network Director can be delivered to devices over the top, within OS maintenance releases and as a preload. "Sprint will be preloading our software onto their devices once the initial rollout to in-market devices via maintenance release is complete," Fitzgerald told FierceBroadbandWireless, though she did not supply a timeline.

In addition, Smith Micro is in trials with several other unnamed carriers both domestically and internationally. "So we expect to have a very broad deployment of this solution globally," said Fitzgerald.

However, she acknowledged that a client-centric approach to network offloading "is a little bit novel for some operators," so operators are moving cautiously as they trial the company's product.

Client-centric solutions can enable an operator to make policy choices based on current network conditions in a given location from an individual device's perspective. Fitzgerald said the Mobile Network Director middleware for a device enables an operator to see where congestion is occurring and set policies on a device level to intelligently manage that traffic.

"If my default posture is 3G, when I'm in a particular location at a particular time of day, is something like WiMAX available to me or is Wi-Fi available to me? That's what the software looks for. What's the best available connection for me at this point in time, etc.," said Brian Deeley, Smith Micro's senior director of product management.

Deeley noted that users often switch off their smartphone's Wi-Fi capability because they don't want to have the handset constantly searching for Wi-Fi connection that may or may not be there, thus wearing down the phone's battery. But the Mobile Network Director middleware can assess a phone's battery and, if a known and approved Wi-Fi connection is nearby, turn on the handset's Wi-Fi capability so the device will use that network instead of the macro cellular network.

If a device is stationary, it can be programmed to link automatically to any nearby Wi-Fi network that it has previously connected to. There are other third-party applications that include databases of public and exclusive Wi-Fi networks that are unsecured, and they may automatically link a user's handset to what might be an unfriendly or private Wi-Fi network, but Deeley emphasized, "That is something we definitely do not do."

While Sprint's approach might be considered covert, give that it is deploying the offload software via maintenance releases, other operators are taking the OTT approach, which has the drawback of only engaging handsets belonging to customers who personally download the app. For example, in October 2011, AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) announced Smart Wi-Fi, a free app downloadable from Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Play that enables Android-based device users to locate and seamlessly connect to Wi-Fi hotspots while also managing Wi-Fi connections from their handsets. That is not to be confused with the Kineto Wireless Smart Wi-Fi product, which turns any Wi-Fi access point into a virtual femtocell and is at the heart of T-Mobile USA's's Wi-Fi Calling service.

Numerous other vendors are offering client-side offloading solutions. For example, Oslo-based Birdstep Technology last week announced that its smartphone data offload product now works on iOS-based devices in addition to Android devices. The EasySmart 1.0 for iOS is a smart client for Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhones and iPads and enables the automatic off-load of data traffic from 3G to Wi-Fi, including automated provisioning of hotspot credentials.

Rival vendors in the space also include Notava and WeFi.

For more:
- see this Birdstep release

Related articles:
Report: iPhone users continue to use Wi-Fi more than Android subs
Clearwire CFO: Operators will turn to Clearwire
Ireland's Eircom Group deploys Wi-Fi offload for all data plans
Sprint selects Smith Micro solution to manage network traffic
Kineto looks to broaden potential of Wi-Fi off-load

This article was updated May 2, 2012, to indicate the difference between the Smart Wi-Fi products offered by AT&T Mobility and Kineto Wireless.