Report: New roaming tech, more hotspots to drive Wi-Fi offloading

New roaming technology as well as the deployment of more hotspots and small cells will lead carriers to increasingly turn to Wi-Fi offloading for data capacity in the years ahead, according to a new survey from the Wireless Broadband Alliance.

The WBA survey, which was compiled by research firm Maravedis-Rethink, found that Tier 1 carriers around the world expect 22 percent of all additional data capacity added during 2013-2014 to come from Wi-Fi offloading. The report also found that by 2018, Wi-Fi offloading is predicted to contribute 20 percent of additional mobile data capacity, while a further 21 percent is expected to come from small cells with integrated Wi-Fi capabilities. The survey also found that that 51 percent of respondents are more confident about investing in Wi-Fi to supplement cellular capacity than they had been a year earlier.

The survey, carried out during the third quarter, had a total of 197 respondents, 56 percent of which were operators. Within that group, two-thirds were fixed or mobile operators and one-third were WISPs or pure-play Wi-Fi operators. North America and Asia-Pacific each accounted for 30 percent of respondents, followed by Europe at 28 percent.  

Maravedis-Rethink forecasts a steady annual increase in the total number of Wi-Fi hotspots deployed, from 5.2 million in 2012 to 10.5 million in 2018. The WBA said operators are expanding the access they provide via roaming agreements, and as the process becomes simplified and standardized, the WBA expects this trend will continue to accelerate.

The WBA's main effort in this area is the Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) program, which is expected to truly get going commercially next year and has the backing of the likes of AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T), China Mobile, KT, NTT DoCoMo and Orange.

Last year the Wi-Fi Alliance's Certified Passpoint program launched with a broad set of approved network gear. Mobile devices that are Passpoint-certified can work and roam on the Hotspot 2.0 standard. The Hotspot 2.0 technology makes registration and authentication of access points seamless, and the NGH program is a complement to Hotspot 2.0 that lets data sessions be passed along from cellular to Wi­-Fi seamlessly.

The NGH program is designed to do several things, both for end users and for carriers. For customers, their phones will be able to jump onto the best network available, whether that be Wi-Fi or the cellular macro network, without them having to actively switch networks. The survey found 78 percent of respondents are planning to launch an NGH by end of 2015.

For carriers, Passpoint-certified phones that access Passpoint-certified network equipment will know which cell tower they are connected to, using SIM-based authentication. Carriers can set rules that would push cellular traffic from the macro network onto NGH Wi-Fi hotspots if a phone is connected to a congested tower or a particular tower at a certain time of day when network congestion is high. It will largely be up to the carriers about how transparent they will be with customers about their network management.

Carriers also will be able to cut down on roaming costs using the technology.

Boingo Wireless recently launched the world's first commercial NGH Wi-Fi network at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. Further, the WBA this week launched the first live, end-to-end NGH network during the Wi-Fi Global Congress in Beijing. The network is being hosted by Cisco and China Mobile. The WBA has said a total of 13 service providers will demonstrate NGH capabilities using the network during the Congress, which ends today. Among them are AT&T, Boingo, China Mobile, Fon, Time Warner Cable and Towerstream.

For more:
- see this release
- see this CNET article

Related Articles:
AT&T, Cisco and others to demo live Next Generation Hotspot Wi-Fi network
AT&T harps on need for Wi-Fi roaming agreements
Apple's iOS 7 adds support for Hotspot 2.0 standard for Wi-Fi
AT&T, Boingo ink international Wi-Fi roaming deal
Boingo exec: Enhanced cellular/Wi-Fi roaming to launch commercially in 2014
AT&T, others pass first hurdle in WBA's global Wi-Fi roaming effort