The Wi-Fi Way: How This Unlicensed Wireless Technology Hit the Big Time - And What's Next

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The Wi-Fi Way: How This Unlicensed Wireless Technology Hit the Big Time - And What's Next

By Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, TMC  |  July 27, 2015

Wi-Fi seems to be everywhere these days. It’s in our homes, in our offices, in chains like Starbucks, and even in many independently owned restaurants and shops. And from the looks of things Wi-Fi will only continue to expand and become more woven into our online experiences.

Indeed, in announcing its planned merger with Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications (News - Alert) President and CEO Tom Rutledge in late May talked about the company’s interest in expanding its Wi-Fi footprint to remain competitive. That will be key for the cablecos considering that consumers are increasingly mobile, and the telcos – which initially wanted nothing to do with Wi-Fi – continue to expand the bandwidth and reach of their cellular networks via 4G LTE, small cells, and Wi-Fi.

"With our larger reach, we will be able to accelerate the deployment of faster Internet speeds, state-of-the-art video experiences, and fully-featured voice products, at highly competitive prices,” said Rutledge. “In addition, we will drive greater competition through further deployment of new competitive facilities-based Wi-Fi networks in public places, and the expansion of the facilities footprint of optical networks to serve the large, small and medium sized business services marketplace. New Charter will capitalize on technology to create and maintain a more effective and efficient service model. Put simply, the scale of New Charter, along with the combined talents we can bring to bear, position us to deliver a communications future that will unleash the full power of the two-way, interactive cable network."

Whether Charter is successful in its move to acquire Time Warner (News - Alert) Cable is a big question mark, but one thing is clear: That Wi-Fi has become a very important piece of the strategies of cablecos, cellcos/telcos, and even many non-communications-focused businesses.

Just consider how widespread Wi-Fi is already, and take a look at where it’s headed.

The Wireless Broadband Alliance and Maravedis Rethink Research in May issued a report noting the massive expansion of public Wi-Fi in recent years and saying that the influence of Wi-Fi will only expand going forward.

 “2015 will be a landmark year for Wi-Fi, with key technical and market developments which will enable new business models for existing and new service providers,” said Caroline Gabriel of Maravedis Rethink Research. “As well as driving new hotspot build-outs and service launches in the one- to three-year timeframe, it will also lay the foundations for Wi-Fi’s prominent role in the wireless world of 2020, which will see an even bigger explosion of consumer, enterprise, and IoT services and providers.”

Global public Wi-Fi hotspots, which numbered 1.3 million in 2011, are poised to reach 5.8 million this year, marking a 350 percent increase, according to research published by the Wireless Broadband Alliance and compiled by Informa. And a March 2015 study commissioned by Bluwan forecasts the overall number of carrier-grade Wi-Fi hotspots will exceed 31 million by 2019, with more than two thirds having to support dense or hyper-dense traffic loads.

"The capabilities of Wi-Fi have greatly extended in recent years to create a new generation of carrier-grade technology," said Simon Saunders, director of technology at Real Wireless. "This can match the credentials of wireline or mobile carrier-grade networks and deliver QoS that can support new revenue streams to fixed, mobile and cable operators."

For cablecos, which don’t own cellular networks, Wi-Fi offers a means to extend their broadband services outside homes and businesses. Indeed, some of the top cablecos last year came together to for the CableWiFi Alliance to allow Bright House Networks, Cablevision, Comcast, Cox (News - Alert) Communications, and Time Warner Cable customers to leverage the public Wi-Fi access points from all of the above providers.

For cellular service providers, Wi-Fi is a way to extend the reach of their networks indoors or to other areas for which they might not otherwise have an affordable and viable wireless option. Indeed, cellular service providers and their vendors, such as Ericsson, have for several years been talking about the rise of the hetnet – or heterogeneous network – that would leverage a combination of different types and/or generations of cellular networks, as well as Wi-Fi, and potentially other wireless technologies and techniques.

Wi-Fi continues to advance on the enterprise front as well. That makes sense given that 80 percent of all mobile data traffic is streamed indoors.

A Cisco Systems spokeswoman recently sent me an email (about the company’s expanded 802.11ac Wave 2 portfolio and its use by small and medium businesses) in which she commented: “Wi-Fi is expected to become the primary method of connecting to just about anything, and a business that doesn’t embrace this change puts itself at risk of falling behind the competition.”

That seems to be true whether we’re talking about manned devices like smartphones and tablets connecting, or unattended things plugging in to the network.

As Erik Linask (News - Alert) wrote in a recent column for CUSTOMER magazine, a sister publication to INTERNET TELEPHONY, a recent report by AirTight Networks, EarthLink, and IHL Group indicates increased sales and customer loyalty following the deployment of Wi-Fi within retail establishments.

“Not surprisingly, the hospitality sector recorded the greatest increases in loyalty (61 percent) and in-store time (59 percent), as well as a 2.7 percent increase in sales,” Linask noted. “General retailers experienced more than respectable increases as well (22 and 21 percent respectively).”

The Wi-Fi industry is also working on the 802.11ah version of its technology. This particular brand of Wi-Fi offers even better distance the previous iterations of Wi-Fi because it’s at the lower end of the spectrum continuum, explained Kelly Davis-Felner, vice president of marketing with the Wi-Fi Alliance (News - Alert). 802.11ah is also noteworthy in that it is lower power and can support more devices per node than traditional Wi-Fi, she said, adding that all of the above make it an ideal match for sensor-type applications.

“Wi-Fi is going to play a very strong role in the IoT,” she added.

Edited by Maurice Nagle


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