Year on year, we see many trends come to light in the mobile and wireless industry. From the rise of 5G and IoT, to the development of smart home and smart cities, the world around us continues to become increasingly connected – and with thanks to wireless technologies. But with competition heating up between ISPs and content providers, what exactly is in store for the world of wireless?
There is no doubt that we have seen a lot of energy and momentum behind 5G, even though 5G deployments are at least 3 to 4 years away - and some 4G systems are only just starting to be deployed in large markets. While we’ve seen 5G standardization work get underway, and bigger infra companies announcing various kinds of 5G trials, all is not as it may seem, as these early technology offerings are more pre 5G rather than 5G itself (4.5G, if you will).
Then there’s the move to virtualization, as well as small cell deployment, that have been much-hyped in their ability to improve connectivity - but both are moving much slower than expected. While moving towards virtualization is a difficult technological transition, it’s as much an organizational and philosophical change as it is a technology shift. Small cell adoption on the other hand, has been stymied by the presence of Wi-Fi. This is simply because a lot of what small cells promise to do has been provided by Wi-Fi.
In fact, because Wi-Fi has been able to deliver on connectivity, it has quickly become the connectivity method of choice for many - with Broadcom even stating that consumers can’t go without Wi-Fi access for more than a day. As consumer demand for Wi-Fi continues to grow, there has been a general acknowledgement that the Wi-Fi experience in the home could stand to improve, and that many operators are suffering from a substantial amount of customer care (and with no visibility into what was causing these issues). The retail market has been quick to respond, with an influx of mesh Wi-Fi systems entering the market. Following quickly on the heels of start-ups such as Eero, Luma and Plume, the heavyweights, Netgear, Google and Ubiquiti, also entered the market.
But this explosion of Wi-Fi systems in the market comes as a surprise for a number of reasons. Given that 60% of consumers get their Wi-Fi equipment from their service provider, these companies are competing for a relatively small market share. What’s more, these systems are targeted at larger homes with bigger wallets, typically sold in packages of two to five access points, and costing anywhere from $250-$550. Not only is this a steep price tag, but those that suffer from poor Wi-Fi should know that more often than not, this has nothing to do with coverage. While that’s not to say that these systems are in anyway bad solutions – in fact, most of them do a good job of boosting performance in large homes and are better than standard routers that do nothing to make Wi-Fi work better or easier to manage. Despite this the fundamental need for a better solution has led to double digit vendors and, in turn investors, have felt there is enough space to carve out a market for themselves in a business that requires massive volumes to drive reasonable profits.
The advent of radio optimization and Self Optimization Network (SON) solutions in the Wi-Fi world on the other hand, are set to remedy this issue, and make it possible to guarantee good service quality over Wi-Fi, and provide a cellular-like service inside the home or enterprise. The idea here is significantly improved (and predictable) Wi-Fi performance, especially in dense deployment areas, coupled with improved manageability and operator visibility into large Wi-Fi networks. The result – satisfied Wi-Fi users, reduced customer care costs and a foundation for offering managed services (voice, video) over Wi-Fi.
This evolution will help operators in the delivery of mobile services, with major MSOs leaning on their Wi-Fi footprint, backed by a partnership with major mobile carriers, to offer Wi-Fi first services. This will be a trend we see in the US - specifically, it is expected Comcast will launch its Wi-Fi first service by the middle of the year and Charter shortly thereafter. This has the potential to bring forward a number of oft discussed technologies that, to date, have enjoyed more hype than deployment.
But operators still face a battleground when it comes to the home. Traditional communications operators have been locked in a battle for the home for decades, and they’re now also fighting with content providers and internet giants to be the service provider of the future. Wi-Fi is the hub that ties wireless together in the home - whether it be video streaming, home automation or security. Operators have a huge opportunity to ensure a high-quality Wi-Fi experience – making it easy for the consumer – and using this as the springboard for delivering solutions on top of the Wi-Fi interface.
But as previously mentioned, there are plenty of retail products that aim to fill the gap in the market – and Google’s latest offering should strike fear in the heart of ISPs. If Google ends up gaining control of the wireless interface in the home, they will inevitably control the services that ride on top of that interface. Essentially, service providers have the opportunity to offer a Wi-Fi solution as the basis to drive other premium service as part of their connected home solution – but need to ensure they pick up on the opportunity quickly, before being beaten by the likes of Google.
Longer-term, Wi-Fi’s entrenched presence in homes as the broadband gateway of choice can drive an expanded role for IoT, driving diverse appliances not just in the home, but in enterprise and industrial sectors too. As Wi-Fi standards improve location accuracy, and with no additional infrastructure needed besides an 802.11 based AP, we will see various sectors leverage Wi-Fi deployment.
It’s safe to say that the world of wireless is going through a period of change, with various players in the market fighting for a slice of the pie. As we see developments in the connected home, the IoT and smart cities come to fruition, wireless technologies will be essential – and further considerations, around areas such as security, will become top priorities. Operators are presented with a huge opportunity, allowing consumers to roam in and away from the home – they just need to ensure they get there first.
About The Author:
I drive the Engineering team and the technology strategy at XCellAir. Part of my passion lies in ideating new technology concepts and developing them through to commercial solutions. Earlier, I was at InterDigital, running next-generation R&D projects in a variety of areas in the wireless field. Love to communicate and share ideas, and work collaboratively with others in the industry to move the technology ball forward.