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Crowdsourcing Wi-Fi offload: Prepare for the worst, hope for the best

By October 23, 2013 No Comments

An immediate challenge in enabling such a strategy is seamlessness. It’s not realistic to ask customers to keep alert for hot spots and manually connect when one is available.

One solution that’s getting a lot of attention is crowdsourcing. Here, special software on the phone quietly monitors for Wi-Fi networks, and when an open network is found, the hotspot location is uploaded to a central database. Other phones use the information within the database to automatically join listed networks.

Is this solution good for operators?  Is this good for consumers? The answer to both questions seems to be “it depends.” The value is clear, but there are challenges as well. 

Quality
It is reasonable to hope that the user experience when using public networks will be a good one. After all, other users have benefitted from these free services and published this fact via the crowdsourcing service.

On the other hand, there’s no guarantee, as Wi-Fi does not scale efficiently. If the operator cannot make connectivity decisions based on the relative capacity of different networks, operators can inadvertantly compromise the user experience.

This is especially true in crowded areas such as airports. A common customer compliant is that a user’s phone suddenly stops working because it has automatically joined the overloaded airport Wi-Fi. By manually turning off Wi-Fi access, the customer returns connectivity to their phone.

Security
A second issue with open Wi-Fi networks is that information flowing within them can be easily monitored by anyone using readily available network tools.

A cellular network is much more difficult to casually monitor. By seamlessly moving a user onto an open Wi-Fi network, the operator is potentially exposing their customer to security issues without their knowledge or concent.

At best, this can compromise the relationship the operator has with its customer. At worst it can represent a significant security threat.

Customer relationship
When users pay an operator a healthy and regular fee, they expect to receive uninterrupted, quality, high-speed service whenever and wherever they want to use my mobile device.  

If and when service quality issues arise, customers want to know they can check in with the operator and get the issues immediately resolved.  The slippery slope of unmonitored offloading via crowdsourcing is the continued dilution of an already diminished customer relationship. Service providers are teaching their customers not to use their network infrastructure to get service.

Teaching customers they simply don’t need the operator due to ubiquitous, free unmanaged Wi-Fi leaves operators with significant quality and customer relationship concerns. The Wi-Fi service may work poorly, and customers will be dissatisfied that the operator is not doing its job to manage the service experience.  

A better way
When service providers offload users onto open networks, they abandon their ability to manage the user experience and must revert to hope. If cost savings is the only goal, this makes sense. However, service quality is a key factor for mobile subscribers, and hope is a poor strategy for delivering this quality. A clear, more integrated approach is needed.

With intelligence to understand when offload is a good idea, and the visibility to continue managing the customer experience, Wi-Fi offload can become an important strategy for building out service options.

Such an approach, based on Access Network Discovery and Selection Function (ANDSF), is yet to be widely deployed. Yet it is required for 21st century service providers and their customers, who are navigating an ever more complex set of mobile networks to find and receive quality service. 

ANDSF delivers the intelligence to understand when to offload, and when to stick with the cellular network. Criteria include a user’s location, comparisons of available bandwidth on various networks, resources requested by the mobile device (e.g., video vs. email) and the number of other devices accessing service in the same location.

These technology advances enable real-time dynamic decisions to be made, coordinating policy between mobile handsets and networks, to ensure the right choice for operators and consumers alike.  

In the end, those operators who don’t provide dynamic tools for network selection may find that their networks aren’t needed for very long.  As for consumers, they know many networks are available at any one time.  What they want from mobile operators is to provide them the best one at any given moment – and  savvy operators are already deploying more advanced methods to achieve that goal.