Carriers are constantly talking about the limited spectrum available for mobile devices. That’s the reason that give for instituting data caps and throttling heavy users. It’s reasonable to assume that carriers exaggerate the real issues somewhat when the trot this argument out as a case for data caps and tiered data pricing (they make a lot of money that way), but it is true that radio spectrum is a finite resource. With Cisco predicting an 39-fold increase mobile traffic use will over the next four years, carriers will need to find creative ways to manage the slices of spectrum that they have.
One option is to offload service to Wi-Fi networks. All iPhone (or other smartphone) users do this already to some extent when we connect our iPhones to our home networks. They deliver better performance and let use as much data as we want without having to worry about it impacting our next bill. Two mobile trade groups are looking to turn this same offloading model into a large scale option for carriers to deliver better mobile broadband while taking the load off their 3G or 4G networks.
The idea of Wi-Fi as an option isn’t new. Anyone who owned the original iPhone got used to joining Wi-Fi networks whenever and wherever possible because of it didn’t offer 3G capabilities. The challenge is that switching from a carrier’s network to a Wi-Fi network isn’t always a seamless process, particularly for public networks. My iPhone may remember the attwifi network available in virtually every Starbucks and join it automatically, but I still get prompted to accept the company’s terms and conditions each time I walk into a Startbucks and use it. In other cases, you may need to ask the password for a public or guest network, create an account or login to an account, or even pony up some cash to get access – all of which can cause us to just stick with our carrier’s network in a lot of situations where there’s a better performing Wi-Fi option.
By contrast, switching from one cell tower to another, one type of mobile network to another, or even from one carrier to another is seamless. There’s a lot of negotiating the goes between your phone and the various network(s) involved, but you’re completely unaware of that. It’s that seamless is because of the various wireless standards involved.
Creating a set of standards that offer a seamless transition from carrier to Wi-Fi and back is the goal of a joint project by GSMA and WBA – industry trade groups for carriers and Wi-Fi technologies respectively. A team from both groups expects to have a technical solution for managing the hand-off between carrier and Wi-Fi providers by the end of this year. Given that many carriers also operate Wi-Fi hotspots, this could be an easy solution to the spectrum issues as well as a way to deliver a better overall experience.
The big question, however, isn’t technical – it’s billing for service. If this technology is broadly adopted, your iPhone could switch from your carrier’s network one of it’s hotspots or to a different carrier’s Wi-Fi hotspot or even a non-carrier hotspot managed an aggregating service like Boingo. That raises the issue of whether or not a carrier should bill its customers for using its hotspots (most likely not since there’s a win/win in encouraging Wi-Fi use). More importantly, what happens when you switch to someone else’s hotspot seamlessly and even without knowing it? Should you be charged for Wi-Fi roaming or should your carrier eat whatever costs are involved? After all, you’re still taking a load off their network. Ultimately, it the question is whether carriers and providers will see this as a solution they offer for everyone’s benefit or as another way to nickel and dime customers – my cynical side says the latter.