Wi-Fi offloading: Who controls your handset?

editor's corner

One of the latest trends in data offloading is client-centric network management by the operator, meaning operators are becoming involved in controlling which networks (cellular or Wi-Fi) their customers' wireless devices access at any given time. This makes perfect sense from an operator's standpoint, but, as a consumer, I find the concept troubling.

A number of vendors are entering this space. For example, I recently wrote about Smith Micro's Mobile Network Director, a device middleware that was recently deployed by Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S). The middleware can assess whether a known and approved Wi-Fi connection is nearby and switch on a smartphone's Wi-Fi functionality, even if the user has switched off that feature, so the device will use the Wi-Fi network instead of the macro cellular network. The handset can even be directed to switch on its Wi-Fi functionality and link automatically to any nearby Wi-Fi network that the handset has previously connected to without the user being aware of what's going on.

I guess I'm suffering from a kind of "Big Brother" phobia when it comes to a mobile operator telling my device to switch on any capability that I've specifically turned off. I understand why a mobile operator might want to remotely tell my smartphone to find itself a friendly Wi-Fi network to play on if one is available, but it's creepy to think that my operator can override my decision regarding network access.

Sure, there are plenty of times when I've sat on my couch repeatedly accessing the 3G network--rather than the always-on 802.11n Wi-Fi network in my house--just to download email, Facebook updates or even a YouTube video to my smartphone. I have no doubt my service provider would dearly love for me to use my Wi-Fi network for these activities, particularly since I'm on an unlimited data plan, though, alas, one that is now throttled after a certain point of usage. But I still don't want to cede that control to the operator.

I used to log my smartphone onto the unsecured Wi-Fi service at my late father's nursing home, where I surfed the Web and watched music videos whenever the aides were attending to him. Yet when I go visit friends at the facility today, I have the handset's Wi-Fi capability turned off, and I don't feel comfortable thinking it might automatically switch on without my knowledge just because I accessed the nursing home's Wi-Fi network in the past.

I'm not the only one thinking twice about this issue. Dean Bubley, founder of Disruptive Analysis, commented on this topic in a recent blog post.

Bubley targeted the Holy Grail of seamless connectivity as being seriously problematic, particularly if a device is forced by the mobile service provider to use a specific network, when the user or perhaps an app would prefer a different one. "This is especially relevant for Wi-Fi, where there are frequently various options for connection, with different ownership, speed, price, security and features," said Bubley, who added that most Wi-Fi use is enabled via connections to private networks and "operators have no business becoming involved in it."

Bubley also thought of a scenario I had not considered. What if a café offers free, unsecured Wi-Fi service and all of a sudden every single smartphone, tablet or laptop in the vicinity starts automatically jumping onto the cafe's network, even when these devices' owners had specifically switched off the Wi-Fi connection? That would likely cause some serious congestion, and the free Wi-Fi service would become considerably less attractive for the customers who used to visit this particular café because they intentionally wanted to log on while they sipped their latte. Similarly, if every mobile device passing through the front door of my dad's former nursing home hops onto the facility's Wi-Fi network, that network will cease to be of any use to residents and visitors.

If device-centric offloading is not conservatively managed, I can see it prompting consumer backlash. It's very early days for this approach, and any repercussions will be a long time coming because the technology needs to reach critical mass for it to cause widespread problems. I sincerely hope operators use this new capability very judiciously, considering the ramifications if they don't.-- Tammy