WiFi impressions: it’s still a hard slog

To be seen to use WiFi, much less rely on it as an access method, is thought to subtly undermine the entire telco offer. Even though there’s been much talk and action around the hetrogeneous network concept and an urging to ‘seamless’ interworking between WiFi and cellular, there remains a lot of unease and denial when you get in and really talk to people on the ground.

You can tell this by the language used. ‘Offload’ actually sounds pejoritive. As if someone somewhere was actually taking some unwanted items to the dump for disposal.

In reality the real dynamic may be more the other way about. Under user control, many will have WiFi as the default (for when they’re home or at the office) or even in a hotspot area like an airport or train terminus, so if WiFi grows as we suspect it will, it may eventually become the case that cellular becomes the emergency option. Perish the thought.

As for ‘seamlessness’. This is really the idea that WiFi will be OK if the user doesn’t notice or becomes indifferent to the fact that the carrier is defaulting to WiFi. I don’t think the user will become indifferent. I want to see what I’m on, just as now I like to see that the reason my mobile broadband is slow is that Vodafone has dumped me on GPRS. The phone tells me, admittedly in tiny letters.

There is also much talk now of uniformity of experience. What users want, it’s said, is consistent performance, not disconcerting increases and decreases in performance that might come from moving from one network platform to another. I suspect that this might sometimes mean throttling speeds if a user should be handed over from a relatively slow LTE link (in the US a survey has showed a substantial average speed drop for LTE as users increase) to a speedy WiFi link. You can see the problem. The fear is that users will start to wonder why they might be paying a premium for LTE when the ‘offloading’ WiFi services seem to perform far better.

Kineto Wireless has been pointing out that Sprint had selected Kineto Smart Wi-Fi client for Wi-Fi calling (see - Sprint to offer free VoIP over WiFi). In fact the UMA standard on which this is based (Unlicensed Mobile Access) goes way back to the mid-noughties so this is hardly a technology break-through. It is though, another minor OTT breakthrough as carriers are understandably reluctant to grant WiFi equal billing (as it were) as a connectivity option. That’s why UMA has been kept in the background for about 10 years.

Off the record, some executives will reluctantly agree that WiFi calling makes a lot of sense. Users already switch to WiFi in the home so why not put the voice service over WiFi, falling back to cell if the user moves out of range? But to voice it on the record smacks too much of gross disloyalty.

This ‘don’t stress the WiFi’ theme came up over and over again. I went to an indoor wireless event which promised the usual thing - big revolutionary changes in indoor wireless. We went through the presentation: “only 3 per cent of commercial space currently enjoys any indoor wireless coverage so there was a huge market available etc etc.” Wow! That sounds remarkably low, but something was missing. You guessed it.

WiFi wasn’t counted as an indoor wireless solution. They would support it at the connectivity level but it was, it was explained to me, usually a separate entity managed by the IT people and dominated by IT suppliers. They wanted to support carriers inside commercial space so they concentrated on equipping spaces with licensed spectrum access.

But why not use WiFi indoors where it already existed, for the carrier services? “Why would they do that, it doesn’t play to their strengths in licensed spectrum.” This was a rather circular discussion.

So WiFi state of the nation? Steady progress but still a way to go and a lot of arguements to be had on the way.

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