Wi-Fi Offload – Do you Want Quality with That?

At the start of summer I joined the throng in Nice for the annual TM Forum get together and catch up with old friends and hear about the latest and greatest happenings in the telecoms world. I asked fellow attendees what they thought of the event and the general view was that ‘the event was good, but wasn’t the Wi-Fi a joke’. With WiFi an ever more important part of the mobile telco’s tool kit, this was potentially worrying.

Sadly, especially for the company who paid out good money to sponsor the Wi-Fi coverage, the Wi-Fi at the event venue was terrible. Coverage was sporadic at best. Most people decided to use data roaming and accept the charges. In pursuit of further data, I decided to try the public Wi-Fi network at Nice airport on my way home. It was worse than the Wi-Fi at the event venue. I gave up, switched off my laptop and headed to the airport bar.

I am hoping that my Wi-Fi experience in the Cote d’Azur was a ‘one off’ and that all other Wi-Fi networks run smoothly, are superfast and congestion is minimal. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Despite sometimes somewhat jittery and slow coverage the popularity of Wi-Fi continues to increase. The European Commission has just launched a study claiming that 71% of all European mobile data traffic goes over Wi-Fi, and that this will increase to 78% by 2016. Mobile operators are ramping up their Wi-Fi roll out and partnering programs to make seamless Wi-Fi available for their customers.

The economics of offloading mobile data traffic from cellular to Wi-Fi makes perfect sense for both consumers and operators. In many cases it’s free, so consumers love it.  As for the operators, research from Senza Fili consulting shows that the total cost of ownership per bit of Wi-Fi is only 10% of 3G and 43% of 4G. Operators are now starting bundle Wi-Fi allowances with data plans and offer Wi-Fi based data roaming offers. Does this point to a time when a customer’s mobile data allowance will be made up of cellular and Wi-Fi usage, and the customer will not know (or indeed care) what network they’re using as there will be seamless handover? If operators are offering Wi-Fi usage to their customers then the quality needs to be as good, or better than 3G or 4G. Customers don’t care about networks, but they do understand the difference between a good, fast network and a slow one. They just expect things to work – as advertised  – whatever they are doing or watching.  A recent survey of 31,000 consumers by Accenture listed the top reasons that consumers select their mobile internet provider is network quality, then coverage, and then cost. While offloading traffic to Wi-Fi to save money may be attractive, operators need to ensure quality is not compromised.

But Wi-Fi networks are getting smarter and on device software integrated into BSS can help ensure intelligent offload decisions can be made so that the customer quality of experience is what it is expected to be. Deciding which traffic, under what conditions to offload to Wi-Fi can be based on numerous inputs including customer profile, historical data consumption, tariff plan, device type, time-of-day, location information and a wealth of other network information that’s used by BSS. Policies can control the rules for offload, and real-time charging can apply any required charging rules for Wi-Fi traffic – which could be zero rated, could be at a reduced rate or maybe even just charged as ‘normal’ cellular traffic. As operators are spending money rolling out Wi-Fi the question of ‘how are we going to make money from this’ is beginning to be raised.

Operators know they can save money with Wi-Fi offload. Now the attention is turning to ensuring the customer quality of experience and then how to start making money. And that’s where charging and billing come in.

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About Martin Morgan 13 Articles
With 25 years’ experience in mobile communications software, Martin has worked in mobile billing software since the early days of the industry. As such he’s been around long enough to have had numerous articles published. He has spoken at many conferences. He’s served on the boards of software companies and trade associations. At Openet Martin is responsible for marketing thought leadership and demand creation.

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