by Claus Hetting | July 3, 2017
Outside of probably a couple dozen active cases, carrier-driven Wi-Fi ‘offload’ has been less than widely adopted. But with the advent of unlimited data plans, ‘offload’ is poised for a comeback. In fact, we’ve spoken to a number of mobile operators who are right now actively revisiting the issue.
The idea of ‘offloading’ mobile data from cellular to Wi-Fi has been around for more than a decade. Thus far a couple of dozen mobile operators around the world actively push mobile traffic to (usually their own) Wi-Fi networks in select locations. But with the advent of ‘unlimited’ mobile data plans not only in the US but also in Europe, the ‘offload’ concept is beginning to look a lot more attractive.
The incentive to self-offload may have been lost
The issue of course is network capacity – and where to get it. A few months ago, Bloomberg posted this bizarre story on how ‘unlimited’ 4G would kill off Wi-Fi. Actually, the opposite is true: Without Wi-Fi, 4G networks would crash under the load of roughly three times more data.
It used to be that consumers were incentivised to do the offloading themselves: Get off the mobile network as much as you can and save money. Now that mobile data plans are ‘unlimited’, the incentive for consumers to do this is should be on the wane. So if mobile operators want more capacity, they will either need to build it themselves or actively start pushing consumers to Wi-Fi.
So what’s John Legere up to now?
If mobile data traffic is moving back to cellular, what can carriers do to keep up with capacity demand? T-Mobile USA is right now the most interesting case: They just announced the first LTE-U (LTE in unlicensed spectrum) deployments. And they’re petitioning the FCC to make the 3.5 GHz bands licensed rather than shared for CBRS.
All of this is indicative of real urgency: Mobile traffic is rising. It’s a self-inflicted problem resulting from John Legere & Co’s big market share wins and – not least – unlimited plans.
But the business case for cellular small cells is still weak and outside market leaders like T-Mobile not many will have the appetite for big small cell deployments. And even for T-Mobile, all of this may be too little – especially with prospective 5G still years away and very sketchy at this point.
The new ‘offload’ is doesn’t offload – it aggregates
Fortunately, help is not far away. A new generation of ‘offload’ solutions aggregates Wi-Fi and mobile data streams as opposed to moving traffic between the two. The idea is to keep data services always on and gapless – even when moving in and out of Wi-Fi coverage – and getting the best of both worlds: Lots of Wi-Fi where it’s plentiful and cellular when you’re on the road.
We’ve written about Speedify’s approach to aggregation on the device-end here. Another excellent contender is Carnegie Technologies – they’re offering an entire platform to this end with full policy control and a lot more. Read more about Carnegie here.
Of course neither of these do away with the fundamental issues of having a Wi-Fi network footprint to aggregate with and likely service management and authentication layers for the service itself.
A final disclaimer: We’re still monitoring whether or not unlimited plans are beginning to move traffic ‘back from Wi-Fi’ or not. You can read more about it in this blog. It’s quite possible that higher average Wi-Fi speeds indoors will still be preferred by the majority of consumers who – by the way – have their devices set to connect automatically to home and office Wi-Fi anyway. That will take a while to change.
Article from Wi-Fi now.