As carriers off-load traffic to WLANs and hotspots, IT needs to mind security and performance.
U.S. carriers see Wi-Fi as necessary to manage rapidly escalating data demand, and they're shifting users to 802.11 networks
when possible. As they do, enterprise IT teams must keep tabs on unified security and encryption, how these handoffs can cut costs, and the way the still-crude movement between 3G/4G and Wi-Fi affects employees.
Yes, it's one more thing on an already crowded plate of concerns, but mobile broadband use is increasing faster than carriers can keep up. More than 500,000 mobile applications are available across superfast networks, and Cisco projects data demand will almost double annually for the next five years. The problem is that today's cellular networks simply don't have sufficient capacity to handle all this traffic. So, to motivate users to limit their data use over cellular 3G and 4G networks, operators have introduced tiered plans where pricing is usage-based on cellular connections but free on Wi-Fi.
For companies that are paying by the gigabyte, using Wi-Fi instead of 3G/4G should translate to lower costs--and potentially let them adopt less expensive plans--if some questions can be resolved. They include: What happens when users switch networks in midsession? Which networks should different applications have access to? How do we address security and management?
It's also an evolving environment, with the way cellular networks hand off to Wi-Fi poised to change over the next several years as vendors implement new standards like the Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) initiative, a.k.a. Hotspot 2.0. We discuss these in depth in our full report on 3G/4G and Wi-Fi convergence, available free with registration.
Operators don't particularly want to off-load to Wi-Fi. It's easier to manage the user experience when all traffic is on their cellular networks, but they don't have a choice. The nature of wireless is that it has inherently lower capacity than wire, and wireline is what's setting broadband expectations. Streaming content, in particular, generates massive amounts of traffic. In response, operators are using more efficient 4G technologies, deploying as many cell sites as possible, acquiring spectrum as it's doled out, and consolidating (as in the case of the proposed AT&T/T-Mobile merger) in pursuit of greater system efficiency.
Yet, even all this isn't enough. So Wi-Fi, which provides a tremendous capacity boost via a significant amount of radio spectrum that's separate from expensive cellular spectrum, is the answer for now.
AT&T is particularly aggressive with off-loading data to Wi-Fi. On smartphones, if Wi-Fi is turned on, the devices will automatically connect to AT&T hotspots at locations such as Starbucks or certain airports. T-Mobile also has a large hotspot network, as does Verizon. However, only AT&T and T-Mobile include hotspot service for free with both laptop modems and smartphones. Verizon's Wi-Fi hotspot service is free for laptops with its 3G/4G service but isn't available for smartphones. Sprint doesn't offer hotspot service, though with its announced move from WiMax to LTE, that may be on the horizon.
On the enterprise side, our InformationWeek 2010 Wireless LAN survey showed little interest in fixed-mobile convergence systems that seamlessly hand off calls. Just 4% had deployed FMC in their companies, and 11% were testing it.