Enterprises not thrilled with Wi-Fi offload strategies

Sue Marek
U.S. operators often tout the economic benefits of offloading smartphone data traffic to Wi-Fi networks. These Wi-Fi offload strategies are becoming a necessary part of relieving overtaxed cellular networks.

Operators usually paint a picture of consumers diverting cellular traffic onto their home Wi-Fi networks or the Wi-Fi networks at the local Starbucks. But in reality, much of this offloading is actually occurring onto the enterprise WLAN.

During a wireless and mobility panel discussion at the Interop show in Las Vegas this week, several enterprise IT managers in the audience bemoaned Wi-Fi-capable smartphones because the function allowed employees to offload their smartphone data traffic onto their office Wi-Fi network--thus clogging and slowing the entire enterprise's network. To ease the congestion, the Wi-Fi backhaul must be increased and the entire network reconfigured to address the excess traffic.  

So it appears that operator Wi-Fi offload strategies often lead to overtaxed enterprise Wi-Fi networks. And that problem is likely going to get worse before it gets better.

U.S. operators are starting to offer tiered data pricing plans. Last summer AT&T (NYSE:T) replaced its unlimited smartphone data plans with a metered pricing structure; the carrier now charges $15 per month for 200 MB of data and $25 per month for 2 GB of data. Likewise, Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) has hinted that it will launch tiered data pricing sometime this summer.  

As consumers migrate to tiered data pricing, they likely will become aware of their data usage, and will more actively work to direct their traffic onto Wi-Fi networks--including those at their workplace.

So what is the answer? Arun Bhikshesvaran, vice president of strategy and market development at Ericsson North America, said enterprise Wi-Fi networks must be managed just like cellular networks. And operators that have embraced the offload concept need to find a way to track customer usage over the Wi-Fi network by gaining more intelligence into these networks.

Operators today have no visibility into the Wi-Fi networks that their customers are using. Nor can they control the quality of service that these Wi-Fi networks deliver. Of course, there are solutions to this dilemma (and several vendors willing to provide them).

Wi-Fi offloading solves some problems but creates others. Perhaps now is the time for operators to get a handle on the long-term ramifications of this strategy before enterprises block these devices from the Wi-Fi network and consumers are left unsatisfied. --Sue