Wi-Fi offload for mobile data a temporary fix

Jessica Scarpati
SearchTelecom.com

If it's cheaper to plug in some wireless access points than to build a base station or cell site, then why not take advantage of smartphone Wi-Fi capabilities to offload some mobile data traffic with public Wi-Fi hotspots? Sounds logical, but wireless operators feeling the data crunch may want to consider it only as a temporary fix -- not a permanent solution.

"Could they do it? Yes. Does it make sense everywhere? No. Is it likely to be a major strategy? At this point in time, I don't really see it. You could characterize it more as a stopgap," said Mike Jude, a program manager at Stratecast, a division of Frost & Sullivan. "It seems like an awful lot of complexity to save a few bucks."

As operators enter the early phase of 4G network testing -- and for a rare few, such as Sprint Nextel Corp., deployment -- an impending mobile data traffic surge, often referred to as the "IP tsunami," is expected to engulf their networks before they can upgrade to next-generation networking. The latest mobile data traffic forecast from Cisco Systems predicts a 39-fold increase from 2009 to 2014.

On the other hand, wireless networking technologies recently made the leap from 802.11g to 802.11n, achieving a tenfold increase in speed and fairly swift adoption. Service providers whose roots are in the wireline business already would have the fiber in the ground to accommodate public Wi-Fi hotspots.

Stopgap

Although analysts don't dismiss smartphone Wi-Fi offloading as a bad idea, they are lukewarm to it as anything more than a way to stop the bleeding.

"It's a bit of a short-term stopgap for a wider capacity and coverage alleviation strategy, but it does work -- a lot of smartphones are Wi-Fi-enabled, a lot of laptops are Wi-Fi enabled," said Steven Hartley, a senior analyst at Ovum. "[But] I can't see it being much more than an interim solution while the mobile networks are being beefed up."

Although using smartphone Wi-Fi to offload mobile data traffic may improve performance, Hartley said it would probably damage the user experience.

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