By now it's no secret that the rise of smartphones and dongles is driving wireless broadband usage to epic proportions. And it's not going to slow down anytime soon - Cisco Systems' Visual Networking Index estimates that mobile data is growing at a rate of 108% annually, and by many cellco accounts, most of that is being generated by just a fraction of their user base.
The mobile data deluge is, of course, the chief reason cellcos are making plans to evolve to all-IP 4G, but for all the capacity gains and efficiencies to be had from LTE RANs and powerful backhaul solutions using Carrier Ethernet, cellcos are also aware that simply throwing more bandwidth at their smartphone and dongle users is an expensive undertaking that will only get them so far.
Which is why network offload solutions that divert data traffic from the macro network and onto localized broadband connections are generating a lot of interest at the moment. In fact, mobile data offloading will triple in the next five years, according to an ABI Research report. Currently about 16% of mobile data is offloaded from mobile networks today - that will grow to 48% by 2015, during which time data traffic itself will have grown by a factor of 30, meaning that offloaded data will expand 100-fold from current levels, ABI says.
Femtocells and Wi-Fi are the two most visible offload technology options being touted by vendors at the moment, and for a good reason - Informa Telecoms & Media estimates that over 80% of mobile data originates from homes and offices where local broadband connections already exist, and can serve as offload backhaul links for localized access points like Wi-Fi and femtocells.
Such solutions not only promise to ease the strain on macro capacity, says ABI Research practice director Aditya Kaul, but also save cellcos money. "Moving data costs a surprising amount," says Kaul. "Wi-Fi and femtocells in particular do that at a tiny fraction of the per-gigabyte cost of a 3G network." Interestingly, however, there's more to offload than hot spots - in fact, there's more to offload than offload. Cellcos have a number of data traffic management tools at their disposal, from Wi-Fi and femtocells to mobile CDNs (content delivery networks) and media optimization, among other things.
Which ones should cellcos use? As many as necessary, actually.