Wi-Fi offloading morphs to integration as operators strive for more control

Sue Marek

LAS VEGAS—Just a few years ago, Wi-Fi offloading was all the buzz as operators searched for a quick solution to ease their network congestion. But today the discussion around Wi-Fi has shifted from offload to integration, as Tier 1 operators such as AT&T (NYSE:T) strive for more control of the user experience and better quality of service.

During the FierceWireless executive breakfast panel  yesterday, "Designing Tomorrow's Network," which was held in conjunction with the CTIA Wireless 2013 show, Kris Rinne, senior vice president of network technologies at AT&T Labs, told the audience that AT&T is focusing on integrating Wi-Fi capabilities into its small cells so it can provide "end-to-end delivery."  She said that instead of merely offloading traffic, the company is looking to integrate Wi-Fi so it can add security and more intelligence to the data traffic.

Rinne's comments echoed similar remarks made by Bill Smith, president of network operations at AT&T at a Jefferies 2013 Global Technology, Media and Telecom conference earlier this month. Smith said that AT&T, as part of its Project Velocity or VIP, is deploying small cells that include UTMS, Wi-Fi and LTE, noting that adding Wi-Fi to the small cell makes sense because there are many ways to monetize it.

For firms that profited from the Wi-Fi offloading trend, AT&T's comments are likely a bit worrisome. If operators are going to start incorporating Wi-Fi into their own small cell portfolio, which in AT&T's case will top 40,000 in the next few years, the need to offload traffic onto separate Wi-Fi networks will likely decrease.

Of course, carriers have been talking about adding quality of service to Wi-Fi hotspots for some time. In fact, in February 2012, Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC) agreed to buy Wi-Fi networking gear specialist BelAir Networks because it wanted to add carrier-grade Wi-Fi offloading technology to its equipment portfolio. Vish Nandlall, head of strategy, marketing and CTO of Ericsson North America, who also participated in the FierceWireless panel, said operators are looking at ways to optimize and add intelligence to the network and that Wi-Fi is a key part of their toolkit.

But beyond the extra capacity, Wi-Fi also may offer operators an advantage when it comes to cutting costs. According to a study commissioned by the Wi-Fi Alliance and conducted by Senza Fila Consulting, the per-bit total cost of ownership of Wi-Fi hotspots is about half that of LTE small cells and 10 percent of 3G small cells.

With top network chiefs such as Rinne and Nandlall being asked to make networks more efficient and lower capex spending, the Wi-Fi cost advantage is appealing, as long as it doesn't compromise network quality.

Although network advancements were the key focus at the FierceWireless breakfast, the buzz at the CTIA Wireless 2013 conference had little to do with network technology. Instead, M2M and the enterprise once again dominated the show.  Visit CTIALive for complete CTIA Wireless 2013 coverage.--Sue

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