How 4G islands of connectivity can be bridged by Wi-Fi

Following the news that EE is launching a new affordable 4G tariff and handset, it’s expected that more people than ever before will make the transition to LTE. However, operators are still in the process of building out their 4G networks. This means there will be islands of high-speed connectivity where users will be connected to the new service but the rest of their time will be spent surfing on legacy 3G networks. So, how can operators bridge this gap in connectivity to make it worthwhile for consumers to upgrade? The answer lies with Wi-Fi.

Opinions on Wi-Fi within the industry are changing. Once thought of as an offload tool for operators to reduce congestion on their cellular networks, it is now seen as a complimentary technology. However, roll-out of Wi-Fi is still, to some extent, limited. BT, Virgin and BskyB’s Cloud are rapidly building out networks to provide connectivity, but it’s not going to provide national coverage. Where it will excel, however, is indoors – as cellular signal usually suffers here – and also in high density locations such as stadiums.

There has already been a surge in city centres deploying publically available free Wi-Fi, including York, Birmingham, Leeds and Bradford. Shops, bars, restaurants and cafes are also enthusiastically providing free Wi-Fi to consumers. This presents operators with an opportunity to partner with councils or venue owners to take advantage of their wireless networks. Doing so provides extra capacity and coverage in areas where an operator has not already deployed its 4G network. In addition, there are now several companies which provide a network of hotspots (the likes of BT, Virgin and Devicescape) and there is no reason why operators can’t plug into these growing networks as well.

In addition to forming partnerships, operators can deploy their own Wi-Fi networks in areas where they know 4G is still a way off. It would be expensive to deploy a nationwide carrier Wi-Fi network, but targeting specific areas would be much more cost effective. O2 has already done this in popular parts of London, for example.

While a nationwide Wi-Fi network may not be a plausible option, plugging the gaps with already available Wi-Fi may be a sensible strategy. It provides a high quality, consistent connection that would quench consumer demand for fast data access. A huge percentage of our data consumption occurs whilst we are indoors or stationary in high density areas and Wi-Fi is perfectly suited to this environment, particularly as consumers are now used to the speeds available on 4G and feel that 3G no longer cuts the mustard. Wi-Fi can provide a good quality connection in targeted areas, presenting consumers with a faster alternative to 3G.

However, not all Wi-Fi access points are built the same, and data connections could degrade depending on the amount of concurrent users or distance from the AP. In which case, it would be beneficial to incorporate some type of quality of experience monitoring tool, probably on the subscriber’s device. The tool could then ascertain whether the Wi-Fi connection is better than the cellular connection and move the user across, ensuring they are connected to the best network available at any given time, whether that’s Wi-Fi or cellular.

4G may not be pervasive yet, but Wi-Fi definitely does present an interesting option to bridge these islands. As data demand continues to grow and consumer expectations on the quality of connectivity continue to rise, operators will need to work out their broader network strategy to provide subscribers with a great user experience.

Filling the voids in the 4G network will be a key part of this!

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