Tier 1 carriers expect 75% of their small cells to include Wi-Fi by 2018

Tier 1 mobile operators are becoming big believers in shifting data traffic from their cellular networks and onto Wi-Fi networks, and they expect 22 percent of all data capacity added during 2013-2014 to come from Wi-Fi offload, according to a new survey.

The survey, compiled by Maravedis-Rethink on behalf of the operator-led Wireless Broadband Alliance, also revealed that Wi-Fi offload is predicted to contribute 20 percent of additional mobile data capacity by 2018. A further 21 percent is expected to come from small cells with integrated Wi-Fi. In fact, the Tier 1 mobile operators surveyed said that 75 percent of their small cells will have integrated Wi-Fi within five years.

WBA added that in densely populated areas such as transport hubs and cafes 80 percent of cellular data traffic is offloaded to Wi-Fi. However, mobile operators also hope to move beyond Wi-Fi offloading and leverage their Wi-Fi networks to offer location-based services such as targeted marketing, as well as enterprise applications. Nonetheless, 44 percent of survey respondents expressed uncertainty about the return on investment (ROI) from their Wi-Fi initiatives.

Percentage of new mobile data capacity MNOs expect to gain from from various techniques in 2013 and 2018 (Source: WBA / Maravedis-Rethink)

More than half of the survey respondents--56 percent being operators--said they are more confident about investing in Wi-Fi to supplement cellular than they were a year ago. The report attributed renewed confidence to increased hotspot deployments and ambitious business plans announced by some carriers, as well as the arrival of enhanced roaming agreements and WBA initiatives such as Next Generation Hotspot (NGH).

The survey showed that 78 percent of those planning to launch an NGH network will do so by end of 2015. More than half the respondents stated that the most pressing driver for NGH investment is the need to increase data offloading, closely followed by the needs to increase customer satisfaction, increase revenues and facilitate seamless roaming.

Maravedis-Rethink predicts the number of Wi-Fi hotspots will more than double from 2012's total to reach 10.5 million in 2018. The firm said 27 of its survey respondents reported having hotspot networks exceeding more than 1,000 locations, while six have more than 1 million. Nearly 10 percent of operators supporting Wi-Fi roaming reported having access to networks exceeding 1 million locations.

The survey, carried out during 2013's third quarter, had a total of 197 respondents. Of the 56 percent that were operators, two-thirds were fixed or mobile operators and one-third were wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) or pure-play Wi-Fi operators.

For more:
- see this joint release and this report (PDF)

Related articles:
AT&T, Cisco and others to demo live Next Generation Hotspot Wi-Fi network
Wi-Fi-cellular roaming pros and cons, powered by ANDSF, highlighted by 4G Americas
WBA, GSMA identify more hurdles to cellular/Wi-Fi roaming
Lowenstein's View: Wi-Fi will be a bigger part of mobile future
Juniper: Data offloading and connecting intelligently
Thanks to Wi-Fi, only 40% of mobile data will go over cellular by 2017
Paolini: Small cells or Wi-Fi offload?
Operators trust 'untrusted' Wi-Fi networks but not pre-standard Hotspot 2.0
Wi-Fi: The operator must-have for spring and every other season