WiFi is ubiquitous and the inexorable rise in data consumption has led to significant investment in network infrastructure. As such, today’s operators are keen to maintain quality of experience (QoE) and service for users, as well as monetize the vast amounts of data travelling across these networks.

With an ‘always on’ culture and consumer demand for a 24/7 internet connection now the norm, WiFi has become a dominant force and undoubtedly, is here to stay. Many operators are therefore considering a ‘WiFi first’ strategy, which would allow them to provide wide-area wireless service, starting with indoor and outdoor WiFi, and filling in gaps with cellular coverage as and when needed.

But doing so is fraught with challenges, especially when it comes to delivering a good WiFi experience to a high number of subscribers. Ultimately, monetization of WiFi and QoE go hand in hand — consumers can’t be expected to, or simply will not, pay for a sub-par WiFi service. This is especially critical when WiFi becomes the cornerstone of an operator’s wireless strategy. So how do operators overcome the dichotomy between experience and monetization?

Putting WiFi first

The evolution of the heterogeneous network (HetNet) to include macro cells, micro cells and “tiny” cells — such as pico cells and femto cells — has allowed operators to satisfy consumer demand for internet access almost anywhere. By using different access technologies, operators have been able to augment coverage and capacity in dense urban and business environments, and allow users to maintain access to their cellular services.

However, while the HetNet has evolved, the use of WiFi has also accelerated, especially outside of the home. Regardless of where consumers are, they expect to be able to connect to a WiFi hotspot to ensure they are always connected.

It is this familiarity and comfort with WiFi that has led many operators to consider a ‘WiFi first’ strategy. And there are a number of reasons why a WiFi first strategy is a commercially viable option too. WiFi has been used for some time as an offload strategy, providing a capacity augmentation option for existing networks that is relatively cheap to operate. Furthermore, as WiFi first tariffs are typically designed to be less expensive, a WiFi first strategy also allows operators to capture a market segment that is unable or unwilling to pay for more expensive LTE services. A WiFi First strategy also makes complete sense for operators that do not possess, or have limited access to, licensed spectrum.

Some operators are already making strides in implementing WiFi first strategies. ‘Homespots’, where in-home operator-provided WiFi routers transmit a public SSID for use by external customers, are an important part of the operator network that is helping to make WiFi first services a reality.

But running “Carrier WiFi” networks are also fraught with technical challenges — especially when it comes to overcoming interference between access points.

Out with the interference

The number of WiFi access points required to cover the subscribers expected to connect to Carrier WiFi networks is high. The density of access points needed to connect such a high volume of subscribers causes interference and congestion that would seriously affect the quality of user service and experience. Operators looking to monetize Carrier WiFi networks simply can’t afford a poor user experience — it needs to be far more reliable than what is available for free, if it is to be a successful venture.

Which means as operators look to roll out Carrier WiFi networks, they must be able to effectively manage them. This is crucial in WiFi, where there is little, if any, QoE and spectrum management provision within the standard. By utilizing interference and radio resource management techniques, operators can ensure QoE is maintained while users are on their networks. Research has shown that key service performance KPIs, such as latency, jitter and throughput, improve by an order of magnitude in congested environments when radio resource management techniques are leveraged.

Operators also need to remember that as its heart is traditionally in the home, WiFi equipment is not designed for the wide-scale, public deployments that Carrier WiFi requires. Operators therefore need intelligent systems that can automate management procedures to minimize operational expenditure.

The WiFi opportunity

The key to offering Wi-Fi first services lies within better WiFi management. By optimizing performance on unlicensed spectrum, not only are operators able to offer new, WiFi first services that drive revenues, they also open themselves up to significant cost savings.

Research has shown just how inefficient unlicensed spectrum is. In fact, 92 percent of access points stay on the same operating frequency regardless of performance issues. And even after initial channel selection, there is no on-going effort to detect or mitigate performance issues. If, operators successfully optimize performance, they could benefit from cost savings of as much as $71 million. These cost savings would largely arise from improved utilization of unlicensed spectrum and reduced usage of the cellular network to provide wide-area coverage and capacity.

Furthermore, new service revenues from strategies such as WiFi first and better WiFi management could be as high as $303 million, as a result of optimized capacity utilization, improved QoE and lowered incremental cost of capacity.

The time for WiFi is now

With the rise of data consumption, it is clear the role of WiFi is going to become increasingly important. But W-Fi, as it stands currently, is not placed to deal with more data, or more subscribers. Better WiFi management could be WiFi’s saving grace. WiFi management would allow operators to utilize unlicensed spectrum optimally, offer new services via cost-effective WiFi first strategies, provide significantly improved QoE to users, target new audience segments, and make the Wi-Fi everywhere dream a reality.