The wireless spectrum crunch is forcing most mobile carriers to consider options to address a future in which there simply isn’t enough frequency available to easily meet the ever-growing demand for 3G and LTE connections. One idea that has been floated is developing systems that can offload mobile data onto Wi-Fi networks.
That idea isn’t new. In fact most iPhone and 3G/LTE iPad users tend to offload data service to home or public Wi-Fi networks. Doing so has clear advantages to consumers in that it helps avoid any overage fees and it can provide a faster connection in some circumstances.
Dealing with limited spectrum resources, however, carriers have been forced to consider ways of offloading data themselves rather than waiting and hoping that users to take action on their own.
According to research firm iGR, carrier offloading isn’t as easy as user offloading.
For one thing, devices need to support both 3G/4G and Wi-Fi capabilities and need to support seamless switching between the two. More importantly, the carrier’s network hardware needs to support such a switch. It also needs to do so in a manner that is transparent to the user and delivers a comparable experience. If the data is offloaded to a network not owned by the carrier, including pay-for-service networks, then carriers need to have a payment mechanism in place and need to iron out any legal or policy issues that might arise.
Despite that tall order, iGR notes the needed capabilities are beginning to reach the market at this point. The company expects to see Wi-Fi offloading explode over the next four years. Between user-initiated offloading and carrier-managed offloading, iGR expects offloading to reach 16 times the amount of data offloaded today by 2016.
The company also sees a continued explosion of Wi-Fi use beyond offloading due to the increasing number of mobile devices on the market that are Wi-Fi only like iPads without 3G/4G support, iPod touches, Kindle Fires, Nook Tablets, and various Android tablets.
Iain Gillott, president and founder of iGR notes that this expanded offloading will provide some relief for carriers, but may not be a panacea.
iGR believes that WiFi data usage will grow strongly over the forecast period. Although WiFi Offload is a relatively small portion of the overall pie right now, it will grow to be about even with WiFi Only by 2016 in terms of gigabytes per month. For the mobile operators, WiFi offload can provide some relief for congested 3G and 4G networks.