Two recent incidents brought home how deeply Wi-Fi is establishing itself as the preferred network for mobile phones. On vacation recently in South Asia, I was at a café and trying to figure out how I could get Wi-Fi for my phone and tab, when I saw a poster: “Free Wi-Fi for operator X’s customers.” I happened to be such a customer and immediately connected to the Wi-Fi network. Last week, shopping for a mobile device for my daughter, I noticed there are now phones with Wi-Fi capability available for less than USD 50, and most mid-end feature phones have built-in support for Wi-Fi. My personal impression of increased Wi-Fi presence and usage are borne out by data around the world. According to Nielsen, close to 80% of all data traffic on Android phones in the UK is carried over Wi-Fi networks. Laptops, the primary consumers of Wi-Fi for so many years, are now relegated to second place with smart phones being the most common device using Wi-Fi.

These trends increasingly indicate that Wi-Fi has an essential part to play in a mobile operator’s strategy. Wi-Fi offload, when mobile operators actively use Wi-Fi as part of their data access network, has many benefits for operators as well as customers. These include improved congestion management on cellular networks, cost-effective leveraging of Wi-Fi POPs and better understanding of subscriber behavior. The same Nielsen study also points out that there is a decrease in 3G traffic by 55% in the night, but taken together with Wi-Fi usage this actually represents a 30% increase! All these benefits can be derived if the experience of switching between cellular and Wi-Fi can be made seamless, which can happen only when operators take an active role in delivering a smooth service experience.

This seamless experience for subscribers can be achieved when:

  • Wi-Fi can be included in a regular cellular price plan
  • the same MSISDN can be used for authentication, billing/charging and support and
  • subscribers don’t need to hunt and locate Wi-Fi hotspots

Each of these has conventionally called for different products to be deployed within the network. Now, single platforms have emerged that can do all this in an integrated manner, taking the burden off the operator to deploy and manage a mess of interfaces. Every network can and should explore these integrated mobile data platforms and take advantage of Wi-Fi offload to improve end user experience and the efficiency of its data network.

Meanwhile, I will keep hunting (and haunting) cafés which offer free Wi-Fi as one of their specials.