MWC 2012: Cisco's Plan To Improve Mobile Internet

At Mobile World Congress, Cisco talks up a vision of its gear at the heart of an Internet where wireless devices seamlessly roam anywhere, automatically adjusting to new networks.
Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn gives the mobile industry a nearly failing grade when it comes to the public's expectations for connecting mobile devices to the Internet. In his opening day keynote at Mobile World Congress, Dunn charged mobile ecosystem stakeholders to do more to provide universal access to mobile technologies. Cisco seems to be on the same page.

Whether it's the premium cost one must pay to get a tablet that can connect from anywhere (Wi-Fi or Wireless Broadband,) or the lack of connectivity where the airwaves should be full of signal, wireless friction abounds, Dunn noted. It's not clear whether Cisco heard Dunn's clarion call for simplification, but the company is here at the show in Barcelona, Spain outlining a vision for what it calls the "mobile next generation Internet."

Cisco's objective, according to Cisco Service Provider Division senior director Murali Nemani, is for wireless devices to seamlessly roam anywhere, indoors or out, without having to be reconfigured to manually roam onto a new network.

For example, imagine a business traveler whose iPhone, after arrival at a hotel, automatically reconfigures itself to work over the hotel's Wi-Fi network, then automatically re-establishes any secure connections (say a VPN connection to the office).

[ See our complete Mobile World Congress 2012 coverage, live from the mobile industry's hottest event. ]

Cisco wants this scenario to work seamlessly for anyone, anywhere, Nemani says. Users could wander from a hotel, into a cab, into an airport and then onto an airplane and, without any manual intervention, see their devices automatically reconfigure themselves for the best connections for voice and/or data.

One use-case Cisco is apparently racing to support is the one where users are relying on interrupted mobile video in the middle of a hand-off between mobile networks. Through data that Cisco collects from mobile operators and compiles into something called the Visual Networking Index (VNI), the company anticipates 18x growth of mobile Internet traffic by 2016, and further predicts that by 2015, 71% of mobile traffic will be video. Nemani admits that one reason for such a lopsided number is that minute for minute, video easily dwarfs the sort of traffic produced by any other application. That percentage would include tablet users who are leaning back to watch a Netflix video. Netflix is responsible for as much as 30% of U.S. Internet traffic during peak usage periods.

Chronologically speaking, Cisco's vision looks to be a light at the end of the tunnel given the technical journey that mobile users have been on for more than a decade. First, there were devices that could connect to one network or another. Then, there were (and still are) devices that could connect to two mobile networks (WiFi and wireless broadband), but which required significant manual intervention for each new connection event. That friction is eased to some extent when roaming from Wi-Fi to wireless broadband for devices with radios of both types. For data, those devices try the Wi-Fi network first; if it doesn't work, they default to whatever wireless broadband network they're provisioned with, provided there's enough signal.

Things get a little more difficult when you're data-roaming in the other direction. What Wi-Fi network should the device choose for connection? Which secure protocol should it use when authenticating? What's the password? Are there any charges? Given that Cisco estimates that 80 percent of all Web access on mobile devices is being done from an indoor location (the company collects a lot of usage data from the operators that rely on its gear), users are likely enduring significantly more friction than they'd like.

Beyond the friction in data-roaming, there are additional challenges with voice-roaming. So long as a voice-enabled device like a smartphone has enough signal, making and receiving calls is usually possible. But once that smartphone penetrates the bowels of an office building, or ascends to a certain floor, off-axis from the outdoor wireless broadband infrastructure, all bets are off.

Given the puzzle pieces that are prerequisite to this seamless mobile Internet vision--everything from technology (eg: pervasive deployment of femto cells) to extraordinarily complicated roaming agreements involving mobile operators, landlords, broadband providers, hotel chains, and others--Cisco does not underestimate the work ahead.

But the company is motivated. If the rest of the mobile ecosystem stakeholders share Cisco's vision, Cisco's bottom line could see explosive growth. Not coincidentally, from routers to switches to VoIP PBXes to VPNs, Wi-Fi infrastructure, femto cells and client software on the mobile devices, Cisco makes all the gear and software that's needed to enable such a unified world. Given the amount of gear it would take globally (or even just domestically) to enable seamless roaming from anywhere to anywhere, Cisco's technology footprint could blossom substantially.

According to Nemani, the majority of Cisco's currently installed Wi-Fi gear would only need a software upgrade to plug into the architecture that Cisco announced Tuesday at Mobile World Congress. Carriers and operators who are already running backbones based on Cisco's popular ASR5000 mobile multimedia platform would have less gear to buy and work to do as well.

While Cisco often complies with open standards and competes on implementation, it is currently driving at a bit of global domination with this plan. Several proprietary components are involved, not the least of which is the client software that it hopes to see pre-installed on mobile devices. The software is responsible for managing the variety of hand-offs that are necessary in order to seamlessly roam from one network to another, making decisions that have to do with which network offers the highest performance or has the most reliable signal.

Nemani said that Cisco will consider opening its technology up to allow competitors to participate at various points in the architecture. But for the time being, at least while it's getting its vision off the ground, Cisco is not sharing.

[ Want more on Cisco's current strategy? See Chambers Reinventing Cisco, Or Recycling Tactics?. ]

Obviously, Cisco must convince the mobile operators on the value of its plans, and it appears to be off to a good start. As a part of today's announcement of its Next Generation Hotspots (NGH) plan at Mobile World Congress, Cisco announced that it will be working with AT&T, BT, PCCW (Hong Kong), Portugal Telecom, Shaw Communications (Canada), and Smart and True in Thailand.

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