opinion


Wifi: The second coming

Next generation wifi standard 802.11n is beginning to hit the mainstream, with a steady flow of early adopters announcing plans to roll out the technology over the past couple of months.

But according to Selina Lo, president and CEO of Californian wifi kit vendor, Ruckus Wireless, it’s the carriers that are starting to sit up and take notice of the technology more readily associated with enterprise and consumer deployment.

It’s long been implicit that wifi wasn’t built for carriers – the inadequate range, unreliability, interference issues and sub par voice and video performance have all contributed to a technology that provides neither threat nor opportunity for those with their own cellular network. Even the hotspot operations of BT and T-Mobile are largely seen as bolt-ons to the operators’ core access strategies.

Ironically however, it’s the latest generation of mobile devices with built in wifi capabilities that are causing the carriers to pay heed.

“Wifi is getting a second look from the operators, thanks to the iPhone,” said Lo, “Carriers are suddenly being forced to address wifi.” And with 17 million wifi-enabled devices shipped in 2007 and 230+ million expected to be shipped by 2012, according to Informa Telecoms & Media, wifi gadgets are fast falling into the hands of the masses.

Mike Roberts, principal analyst at Informa, said, “Some carriers including T-Mobile committed to wifi but didn’t end up making a lot of money from it, so most operators are definitely cautious on wifi.” However, he said it is true that people are increasingly using wifi on mobile devices as well as wide area wireless broadband networks such as EV-DO and HSDPA. “So operators have a numbers of options, and they’re actively evaluating them. The options include installing or upgrading wifi networks, or deploying EV-DO or HSDPA femtocells.”

Ruckus’ Lo was dismissive of femtocells as an “unproven technology” compared to the maturity of wifi, and told telecoms.com that in her conversations with carriers, she had learned that a significant proportion of the fast growing internet traffic coming from mobile devices, “Isn’t coming from cellular networks, it’s coming from wifi.” And in the US, much of that traffic is coming from the Apple iPhone, arguably the most effective device to date for showing the average user that a full web experience is capable on a mobile handset.

On the other hand, 802.11n, the next generation standard for wifi, has had its fair share of bad press. The technology promises to deliver up to five times the throughput and up to twice the range of previous-generation wifi gear, making it an attractive option for streaming high definition video, online gaming with multiple users on a single network and speedy file transfer of photos, music, and more. But whilst still in the draft stages, analysts have repeatedly warned enterprises, carriers and consumers alike to stay away from the next generation technology, arguing that the existing installed base of 802.11a/b/ and g gear should be good until as late as 2011.

But Ben Gibson, senior director of mobility solutions at networking kit vendor Cisco, disagrees. “802.11n will open up a lot of interesting opportunities for wifi to be more broadly adopted,” he said, noting that dual-mode phones such as iPhone and devices from Nokia will help drive the market.

In the enterprise in particular, Gibson said there is a trend toward taking advantage of dual-mode devices in order to reduce costs by offloading customers onto the wifi network where they can use VoIP and benefit from improved in-building coverage. “Europe will lead the way in this because of high roaming charges,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ruckus itself has just unveiled its first portfolio of products to feature .11n technology, which it is targeting squarely at the carrier and service provider market for deployment in the residential, commercial and hotspot spaces, along with a carrier grade remote management system for hotspots.

The MediaFlex 7000 and ZoneFlex 7942 both feature .11n as well as Ruckus’ own proprietary Smart Wi-Fi technology, which incorporates six vertically polarized and six horizontally polarized antennas to give better range and reliability. “.11n has a potentially bigger performance variability [than its predecessors] because of the way multipath networking works,” said Lo, claiming that Ruckus’ technology is able to beat the disruption.

Lo believes that with the advent of 802.11n, the creation of a ubiquitous, reliable hotspot network is a viable, cost effective way to quickly expand mobile service coverage and offload media intensive data applications from costly cellular networks.

Some content providers are even subsiding access at wifi hotspots as a way of encouraging users to view their wares, a tactic being put to good effect by BT in the UK under a deal with The Cloud.

As a result, Ruckus now sees operators re-architecting hotspot networks slapped together with consumer grade APs to improve quality, scalability and manageability. Not least because, according to Lo, .11n is capable of making a perfect backhaul technology by meshing access points together but also because the increased reliability of a MIMO-based platform opens the door for operators to offer managed services for both the home and the enterprise.

Indeed, Gibson said that Cisco is seeing a lot of early interest in this from operators in Asia and Europe. He said that Cisco has around 100 unannounced pilots, mostly in Europe, running with partner Nokia and regional as well as national carriers that are trialling dual-mode, public-cellular/private wifi services.

“The mobile operators will look to expand their wifi hotspot networks and look down-market into SMBs and look at more of a managed services model,” he said, adding that this will be not just for voice but probably even more so for data because “Wifi has a lot nice bandwidth for data apps.”

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