Of the many issues that operators are currently seeking to address, one of the main ones they face is resolving problems relating to capacity — but some might argue the solution to this already exists, hiding in plain sight.
Offloading some of the mobile traffic to Wi-Fi networks has been a key strategy of some mobile operators in recent years. Wi-Fi accounted for an enormous 75%–90% of all mobile data consumed in leading LTE markets. The reasons for this are threefold. First, it’s frequently made available free at the point of use for users; secondly, support for the technology is included as standard in almost every mobile device on the market today; and thirdly the operators do not have to pay for the unlicensed spectrum used by Wi-Fi.
Although some operators deploy their own dedicated Wi-Fi networks, they are still not comfortable with sending voice over Wi-Fi. Carrier-grade Wi-Fi has been something the industry has discussed at great length, but as of yet has failed to turn into a reality on a large scale. This is because the best-effort Wi-Fi networks are not controlled from the carrier’s core network and the Wi-Fi access points (APs) often do not support any form of traffic management or prioritisation. As a result, the operators are unable to monitor or address performance issues such as congestion, as it would in the wireless or wireline access network. This means the provider cannot guarantee QoS (quality of service) and control things such as speed, latency, connectivity and prioritisation.
Despite what operators might believe about mobile users, they’re in fact quite used to the fact that when something is free it’s often not as good as the paid alternative. This is the same with Wi-Fi and mobile networks, and they need to adjust their thinking to suit this.
For example, I am a heavy Skype user and, especially when I travel to Africa, I always make sure I find a hotel that offers Wi-Fi. Sometimes there is a severe delay, and I have to live with frequent call drops — but this is a free service, I’m hardly going to complain about it.
Millions of other Skype users may also experience the same issues when using the service on free Wi-Fi networks, but again also accept that they get what they pay for and love the experience all the same.
Perhaps operators need to therefore acknowledge and accept this fact: users are happy to accept a lower QoS when using free Wi-Fi.
Now, I’m not advocating operators suddenly shift their entire business model to focus on freely available Wi-Fi networks. The industry knows all too well that when you augment a technology to do something it was not designed to do, it can become incredibly inefficient in the long term. This is why LTE networks were designed from the ground up to be fit for purpose.
Instead, operators could educate their users regarding the implications of using VoWi-Fi. Choice is crucial — let the user choose between quality, price and convenience. They will be much happier with the outcome and this gives operators more room to focus on improving the QoS of their own networks, as well as tackling capacity issues.
Operators could think outside of the box and take hold of this opportunity, rather than continuing to struggle until new technology appears to fix their issues. Otherwise they risk losing out to a new breed of MVNO, like Google.
Users are (somewhat) intelligent and, although their expectations are rising, they are already familiar with the limitations of technology like free Wi-Fi.
Nobody would use Skype in their hotel room if this wasn’t the case.