The downside for consumers in the laws of supply and demand are starting to become evident across Mobile Network Operators worldwide. The downside being, that when there is an excess of demand, compared to supply, the operator tries to limit the demand or worse still, the price starts to go up. For example, AT&T have bumped the price of their unlimited Data plans for the last 2 years running and Three in Ireland increased the price of their unlimited plans by €5/month in March of this year. Verizon in the US have taken an approach to influence the demand by telling users that if they consume more than 200GB/month, they will be moved off their unlimited data plans.
The demand side of the curve driven by subscribers somewhat insatiable appetite for more and more data is well publicised, but less so is the challenge of supply from the Operators perspective. The demand is sure to exceed what LTE can supply in the coming years and network densification or licensed spectrum acquisition are too expensive for Operators against the backdrop of falling ARPUs.
Operators are looking elsewhere for that supply, specifically, they’re looking to unlicensed spectrum. In unlicensed, they have options. For example, 3GPP are developing: License-Assisted Access (LAA), LTE-WLAN Aggregation (LWA) and LTE WLAN Radio Level Integration with IPsec Tunnel (LWIP). LTE-U Forum is developing LTE-Unlicensed (LTE-U) and there are some other initiatives like MulteFire. The FCC has recently given the go-ahead for carriers to turn on LTE-U in their base stations. However, coming up on the 20 year anniversary of the 802.11 standard it’s hard not to acknowledge the success of Wi-Fi in the unlicensed spectrum. The adoption of Wi-Fi by device manufacturers, by users and by Hotels, Airlines, Coffee Shops, etc. is unparalleled. That success makes it still a go-to technology in the unlicensed spectrum, where Operators can find a thick vein of data for their subscribers demand. What’s more, Wi-Fi has been in the “garbage-bands” for some time and has a strong incumbent position against the newcomers like LAA, LWA, LWIP and LTE-U.
Since Wi-Fi is a much lower cost alternative to increasing capacity, many operators have been and continue to deploy large scale Wi-Fi networks and to partner with existing Wi-Fi network and roaming providers to provide data access over Wi-Fi for their customers during periods of relatively low mobility. However it comes with challenges for that Operator when it comes to network selection intelligence. A lack of integration between the cellular network and the carrier W-Fi networks is a problem as it means that operators have little control over their subscribers’ offloading behaviour or the quality of their Wi-Fi experience. Users must often know that Wi-Fi provided by their operator is available in that location and must manually select it. This results in a lot of missed offload opportunities and greatly reduces the utility of operator Wi-Fi deployments. The ANDSF standard, developed by 3GPP goes towards addressing those issues. Similarly, the people behind the success of the Wi-Fi brand, the Wi-Fi alliance, have developed a specification and certification process for Hotspot 2.0. The Wi-Fi Alliance also recognise the challenges with Network selection intelligence and as such they have similar goals as 3GPP.
Both ANDSF and HS 2.0 have faced adoption challenges from a Mobile Operating System point of view. To paraphrase an unnamed Operator at a recent Wireless Broadband Association (WBA), “The big OS vendors are more likely to spend time putting lasers on the top of their phones, than build ANDSF and HS 2.0 client support into their operating systems”. The reason: there isn’t enough demand for those vendors to invest time and money in those standards. That operator was trying to rally the other Operators in the room to leverage their relationships with Apple and Google in order to create the demand for those standards.
There are challenges ahead for all digital service providers utilising Wi-Fi as an alternative yet complimentary supply of capacity. Perhaps now, with new entrants / substitute technology looking towards the unlicensed spectrum, it will create the momentum required to iron out those kinks.