Wi-Fi seen trumping LTE, small cells in operator networks

June 11, 2013
Wi-Fi Alliance contends that Wi-Fi technology has emerged as a cost-effective solution for operators who face serious capacity problems on their mobile networks.

Wi-Fi Alliance contends that Wi-Fi technology has emerged as a cost-effective solution for operators who face serious capacity problems on their mobile networks. According to the industry group, independent research shows that Wi-Fi delivers the same capacity for half the operators’ Total Cost of Ownership (TCO), compared to LTE and small cells, which have come into sharp focus as operators contend with data traffic growth exceeding 60 percent annually, and face particularly difficult coverage challenges in dense environments, claims the Alliance.

Independent research recently released analyzes small-cell economics and confirms that when examined on capex, opex, and per-bit capacity, Wi-Fi nodes are compelling as compared with both 3G and 4G nodes. The economic model and results are detailed in a report entitled “Carrier Wi-Fi for Mobile Operators: A TCO Model Assessing the Cost Benefits to Wi-Fi and Cellular Small-Cell Joint Deployments,” developed by Senza Fili Consulting and commissioned by Wi-Fi Alliance. The model takes a long-term view of per-bit Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for Wi-Fi, 3G and 4G small cell technologies.

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The study's findings suggest that per-bit TCO for Wi-Fi is about half of LTE and ten per cent of 3G small cells. Comparison against even the most advanced licensed small cells does not change the picture, contends the report. 802.11n and newest-generation 802.11ac technologies, entering the market this year, are shown to outperform LTE and LTE-A on per-bit TCO.

The study notes that operators need not choose either 3G/4G or Wi-Fi. When a combined Wi-Fi/cellular solution is deployed in a single location, per-bit TCO is dramatically reduced, claims the report. “Given their performance, capacity and cost-effectiveness, Wi-Fi small cells are a compelling element of a variety of coverage strategies and operator business models,” adds Monica Paolini, president of Senza Fili Consulting. “Operators can deploy Wi-Fi and licensed small-cell solutions in separate environments, together on the same nodes, or investing exclusively in Wi-Fi small cells ahead of 4G maturity.”

Wi-Fi Alliance points out that its Wi-Fi Certified Passpoint program, introduced last year, has created an industry standard that streamlines network access and eliminates the need for users to find and authenticate a network each time they connect. The end result is a cellular-like experience for Wi-Fi, with devices having the ability to automatically connect and roam across multiple networks.

Since the Passpoint program's introduction, more than 100 smartphones, tablets and access points have been certified. Some mobile operators have implemented interim solutions to roaming, in order to extend Wi-Fi coverage to one another’s subscribers. Meanwhile, "the worldwide transition to industry-standard Wi-Fi roaming is underway," contends the industry group, with multi-operator trials on Passpoint-certified equipment taking place currently. Wi-Fi Alliance says that it has collaborated with other industry groups to ensure the building blocks are in place to create a truly global Wi-Fi roaming experience.

“Operators have embraced Wi-Fi technology and are deploying it in a variety of ways,” comments Edgar Figueroa, president and CEO of the Wi-Fi Alliance. “Wi-Fi Alliance has introduced a range of solutions to meet operators’ needs, including Passpoint. We are working across the industry to contribute to the development of end-to-end solutions for operator networks.” For more information about the Passpoint certification program, operator Wi-Fi solutions, and subscriber demand for a differentiated mobile Wi-Fi experience, visit www.wi-fi.org/operators.

Related analysis: Why Wi-Fi is more open than cellular for mobile Internet

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