First, let’s establish an important fact: There is no conflict between small cells and Wi-Fi. If there has ever been a war it was fueled by industry players with an agenda to promote one over the other.
The truth is that service providers need both small cells and Wi-Fi to provide the right coverage at the right place and to accommodate all the devices a user has. Furthermore, given current trends in data consumption from mobile devices, service providers will need all the spectrum they can get their hands on to provide a good user experience for their subscribers.
Indoor Coverage, Wi-Fi Calling, and Small Cells
Indoor coverage is the greatest challenge, and this is where small cells and Wi-Fi come in. No one would ever consider trying to light up a room with a street lamp. What you need is equipment optimized for the purpose.
Next-generation Wi-Fi Calling is a game-changing technology for mobile operators. For years, operators have been complaining, and rightfully so, that over-the-top (OTT) players such as Netflix and YouTube are earning fortunes utilizing the operators’ investments in network infrastructure.
Now it is payback time.
For the first time in history, mobile operators can leverage someone else’s network infrastructure to deliver their voice and SMS services. And that someone is primarily the user. Wi-Fi Calling works seamlessly with native support in the mobile device over any Wi-Fi connection, including the one in a user’s home where they spend most of their time.
So will Wi-Fi Calling kill the small cell market? We do not think so. Of course, mobile operators will most likely no longer consider implementing small cells or femtocells in the home. That would be as crazy as watering your lawn on a rainy day. But, in dense areas such as stadiums and shopping malls, small cells may be the optimal solution to cope with the end-to-end quality of service (QoS) challenges carriers face when thousands of users are vying for voice service all from the same general location.
If you need small cells in some venues, then why should mobile operators care about Wi-Fi at all? Simply because Wi-Fi is the best insurance policy they can get to protect their core business. Today 70-80 percent of traffic from mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets goes through Wi-Fi and that figure is expected to rise to 85-90 percent within the next few years (Source: Analysys Mason, www.analysysmason.com). It’s clear why this is so: Devices love Wi-Fi as they run faster and more efficiently over this kind of network. Users like the convenience of Wi-Fi especially when they can seamlessly move from 3G/LTE to Wi-Fi without having to change any settings or otherwise fiddle with their phone. Users also like how Wi-Fi helps them save their allotted buckets of data. And now, they love how they can make crystal-clear calls over Wi-Fi.
Manufacturers are responding to this demand by producing more and more Wi-Fi-enabled (and even Wi-Fi-only) devices. Combine all of this with the mass availability of Wi-Fi through hotspots and it’s a no-brainer that Wi-Fi will continue to carry the vast majority of data for mobile devices.
If so much data (85 percent) will be diverted to Wi-Fi, how relevant will mobile operators be to users if they can capture only 10-15 percent of their traffic? This question of relevance will have a profound impact on churn. Mobile operators that don’t add Wi-Fi to their business strategy risk becoming “that network I use in my car, when I’m between Wi-Fi hotspots” instead of being a mobile broadband provider.
Moving forward: To maintain any relevance or competitiveness at all, mobile operators must a) add Wi-Fi to their service offerings, and b) cater to the multitude of devices out there, as every user generally has more than 1 Wi-Fi-enabled device — and not all of these devices have a SIM card (think: tablets, gaming consoles, and laptops), which means your Wi-Fi service must be carrier-class. The formula for success is simple to be everywhere and reach every device. Success = All Locations * All Devices. (See Figure 1.)
If the user is not at home, is at work, or in transit, he/she will be at some public venue. This is why presence at venues is so important for operators’ success. And since you never know what kind of device a user is using so you must cover all the bases.
Venue Wi-Fi and Small Cells
In our experience with 100+ carrier Wi-Fi deployments, site acquisition for Venue Wi-Fi is very different from site acquisition in the cellular world. To implement cell service in a venue, mobile operators pay the venue and rent space in which they mount their base stations. With Wi-Fi, carriers instead sell attractive Wi-Fi services to venue owners, bringing revenue in instead of shelling money out. In many cases the ability to sell compelling services is a must for them to even get into the venue.
While carrier Wi-Fi and offloading are all about an automatic login to the Wi-Fi network, Venue Wi-Fi is about user engagement through portals and location-based advertising and services: another opportunity for revenue-generation. (See Figure 2.)
Will the challenge of site acquisition at venues be any different for small cells?
Operators may be forced to use only the voice capability of small cells at some venues or deliver a Venue Wi-Fi-like user experience for their cellular data services. But again, they will still need Wi-Fi to maximize the capacity and coverage in the venue in order to cater to all types of devices. The good news is that most small cells come with Wi-Fi already built-in.
A good partner such as Aptilo Networks maximizes both of these parameters for success. We advocate for all locations and all devices for our operator customers, as well as bridging carrier Wi-Fi with Venue Wi-Fi, including support for Wi-Fi Calling.