Charting a Course to Carrier-Grade WiFi

Cablevision Systems’s recently launched voice-over-WiFi service, Freewheel, is unlikely to be the last such offering, as cable operators continue to add hotspots in their service territories and develop new ways to monetize WiFi technology.

To do that, they need to up their game in terms of the reliability, strength and availability of WiFi access.

Many operators are moving in that direction, but it’s going to take a couple of years for carrier-grade WiFi to be ubiquitously deployed across the country, according to several experts in the field.

A recent survey from Real Wireless for St. Louis-based billings and operations software vendor Amdocs found that carrier-grade WiFi will grow from 14% in 2014 to 85% by the end of 2016. Some 85% of operator respondents said they plan to invest in carrier-grade WiFi by that time.


The survey found 77% of cable operators will have WiFi hotspots in their service territories by 2016 and 72% of those hotspots will be carrier- grade by 2018, Amdocs chief technology officer, broadband, cable and satellite division Ken Roulier said.

Today’s cable-industry WiFi offerings are predominantly a “best-effort” product, rather than a carrier-grade service. Consumer expectations are currently tamped down because service can be spotty and intermittent.

Customer satisfaction is one of many reasons to upgrade an MSO’s WiFi network to carrier-grade, Caroline Gabriel, co-founder of Hampshire, England-based consultancy Rethink Technology Research, said.

“We believe that one to two years from now, we’ll see full quad plays and most operators will be offering some type of voice service,” she said. “Operators are adding a lot of hotspots very quickly. But the big challenge will be the quality of those hotspots.”

New lines of business and revenue streams that could result include mobile voice; data-offload services for spectrum- constrained mobile operators; and a viable and robust TV-everywhere product, Gabriel said.

Cablevision estimates about 60% of the traffic on its Optimum WiFi network is streaming video. So while having a voiceover- WiFi (VoWiFi) service is attractive glue that makes customers happier with their service provider, the carrier-grade WiFi also enables customers to become truly mobile with all their services, including video.

The world is clearly going wireless and it’s doing so at a breakneck speed. A recent study by Cisco Systems found mobile traffic is expected to grow 18-fold between 2011 and 2016. Cellular spectrum is limited and building macrocell sites is expensive, so small-cell solutions — such as WiFi — are becoming more attractive every day.

Cisco’s study predicts that VoWiFi traffic will surpass voice-over-LTE traffic by 2017. And the number of WiFi-capable tablets and PCs, at 1.9 billion, will outnumber cellular- capable tablets and PCs (542 million) by 2019.

Real Wireless, surveying for Amdocs, found that 66% of respondents are attracted to carrier-grade WiFi networks because of the opportunity to offer mobile voice and real TV-everywhere capabilities.

Mobile network operators (MNOs) see WiFi primarily as an offload product to current mobile offerings. The survey found that 72% of cable operators plan to deploy carrier-grade networks by 2018 while 66% of mobile network operators have similar plans. In other words, MNOs could offload their excess data to third-party WiFi networks.

This is already happening to a degree, the experts noted, but will increase as mobile usage continues to expand.

Cablevision spent $300 million in 2007 to build one of the most robust WiFi networks in the country. The company currently has about 1.1 million hotspots inside and outside the home. It’s naive to say upgrading operators’ networks to carrier grade will be inexpensive and easy, Gabriel said.

But there are plenty of companies, including Amdocs, Cisco and others, that have products and services that will trim those costs and speed up the time to market, she said.

It’s not the first or even the second time cable operators have upgraded their networks to provide new, profitable services, and this latest upgrade promises to be just as lucrative as offering data and voice services have proved to be, Roulier said.


Those front- and back-end upgrades to carriergrade status will also be necessary to compete effectively in a wireless world, which is where the worldwide communications industry is headed, noted Kelly Davis-Felner, vice president of marketing for the Wi-Fi Alliance, a global non-profit organization formed in 1999 to create ubiquitous standards and specifications for wireless-fidelity networks.

“For MSOs, [WiFi] is a foray into mobility and allows them to offer voice and data connectivity they haven’t been able to offer in the past,” Davis-Felner said. “It’s easy to envision the day when you don’t have to plug your device into anything.”