Jarich: Carrier Wi-Fi circa 2013: Dinosaurs and awards

Current Analysis Peter Jarich

Peter Jarich

Last year, one of our clients graciously invited me to speak at a Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) member event.  Because of a schedule conflict, I couldn't make it. As the WBA stepped up its efforts around driving Next Gen Hotspot (NGH) and a broader carrier Wi-Fi agenda, I came to regret declining the offer. 

I was excited, then, about the WBA's WiFi Global Summit last week and the opportunity to take the pulse of the carrier WiFi space.  With plenty of carrier and vendor speakers, the WBA did a good job of delivering a state of the market snapshot--even if they didn't spend much time updating non-members on the progress of NGH. More interesting, however, were their WiFi Industry Awards. To be fair, we can debate the value of industry awards or even the qualification of the judges who hand out the awards. Less debatable is the notion that the nominations, shortlists, categories and winners provide their own insights about the industry. So, in case you haven't figured it out yet, we're going to take a look at them, including: True Corporation and Cisco for "Best NGH Initiative"; KT's Olleh Premium WiFi Services for "Best WiFi Service Innovation"; Cisco's Aironet 3600 for "Best WiFi Technology Innovation"; BT's Olympic Games deployment in London for "Most Innovative Hotspot Venue"; and Devicescape for "Best New Venture or Business Plan."

-        NGH Immaturity.  Everyone on the NGH awards shortlist deserves recognition--well, sort of. Only three companies showed up. Operators may see a value in seamless Wi-Fi network selection and authentication. Vendors are certainly in a position to benefit as we move into Phase 2 trials before year-end. Yet, as much as this means that we could see commercial deployments in the first half of 2013, making NGH a success will require much greater ecosystem participation; device vendors, in particular, have been called out for their slowness in support.

-        Locations & Events.  BT's win points to the network densities operators and vendors need to consider when looking at Wi-Fi as a way to address the usage demands of high-profile events. More than that, it points to venues and events as a key carrier Wi-Fi focus. Stadiums. Airports. Malls. The concept of rolling out Wi-Fi anywhere people congregate is logical, but the focus on indoor vs. outdoor deployments also brings its own challenges in terms of site acquisition and coordination with small cell, DAS or other in-building solutions.

-        The Value of "Free."  Long before the awards were handed out, one operator ended his conference session with a rather confusing message. To paraphrase: the business model for Wi-Fi is greatly improved if it can be given away for free. Where Devicescape's award pointed to the value of leveraging free hotspots for offload, the broader message around "free" was a bit more complex…and innovative. In an effort to monetize Wi-Fi (not just offload traffic) incenting usage by not charging opens up new use cases around marketing, analytics, value-added services, etc.

-        Neither Tech nor Service Innovation is Enough.  KT's win was one of the most instructive when considering its comprehensiveness. KT's Ollleh includes AP innovations, roaming onto WiMAX, proactive security, automated WiFi connectivity, and even advertising components. It might be easy to think about service provider Wi-Fi in terms of new network solutions or new services, each in their own silo. Ultimately, KT's win serves as a reminder that neither technology innovation nor service innovation, alone, will be enough to move the Wi-Fi industry forward.

-        Showing Up = 90% of the Game. A final word on the award process itself; if you want to win an award, consider following the rules. Fill out the nomination form completely.  Answer the questions being asked. File in the right category. This isn't to say that any company who won an award or was shortlisted didn't do something remarkable. Rather, it's a reminder that being a winner requires more than innovation or engineering prowess, it involves clear messaging. At the same time, while some vendors and operators might not feel they need an award to prove out their Wi-Fi prowess and commitment to the market, relative newcomers to the space don't have the same luxury (you know who you are); an industry award might not ensure the success of your Wi-Fi business, but showing up at least shows would-be customers that you care.

As much as some companies might not think that they need awards to prove their Wi-Fi chops, it's telling when one manages to win multiple awards and be implicated in others. It's no major revelation that Cisco dominates the Wi-Fi industry. Still its two awards (not to mention its work with award winner BT) send a solid reminder that it's seriously targeting carrier Wi-Fi and having success in doing so. 

Last week, then, when Cisco launched its, "Wi-Fi location data analytics platform" it helped telegraph what might best be termed the "post-offload" Wi-Fi opportunity. Yes, operators still see Wi-Fi as a way to offload traffic from their over-burdened cellular networks. More and more, however, see it as a technology to be monetized--something to make money from. Beyond the traditional pay-per-use models, the concept of making money off Wi-Fi deployments can get fairly nebulous, particularly when throwing out popular buzz concepts like hyper-location, analytics and mobile marketing. Even getting a chance to experience Cisco's work down at Atlanta's Fernbank Museum of Natural History isn't enough to have it all make sense. The monetization behind using Wi-Fi to guide patrons around various dinosaur exhibits isn't immediately obvious…even if the dinosaurs, themselves, are pretty cool. Managing museum traffic by guiding patrons to less-visited exhibits (or an empty café) and engaging them as a way to generate repeat visits (or, maybe, generate some added revenue for the giftshop), however, is compelling. 

Cisco deserves credit for evangelizing this concept, whether via the messaging of its Internet Business Solutions Group or the acquisition of firms like ThinkSmart Technologies. Yet, Cisco isn't alone in telling this story or being able to make it happen. This is a good thing. Just as the success of carrier Wi-Fi will require more than just business model or technical innovation, Wi-Fi monetization will require more than a few vendors or operators rolling out use cases, and definitely more than some cool dinosaur exhibits.  

Peter Jarich is the VP of Consumer and Infrastructure at Current Analysis. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich.