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Wi-Fi Becoming Critical Part Of Carrier Networks

Cellular networks can't handle the data load that users are generating, so carriers increasingly are turning to "mobile data offloading," which means local Wi-Fi networks take over when needed. The major carriers--AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile--all have public Wi-Fi networks, but other companies such as Boingo and Comcast do, too. The classic application: the stadium, known as the "extreme sports" of the wireless networking business.

It's a beautiful day at the ballpark. Forty-five thousand fans are watching the game, drinking beer, and playing with their phones. They're having a good time, but the Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint cellular data networks are having a heart attack.

The stadium is the classic example of a location where demand for mobile data bandwidth far exceeds what it makes sense to provide on the cellular network. The demand is so great, it squeezes out capacity for voice and texting, so none of these functions work properly. The answer is to offload as much of that data as possible onto other networks, and that means Wi-Fi.

The practice of "mobile data offloading" has been increasing and will continue to in coming years. Areas that are thick with mobile users at sporadic times (such as stadiums) or all the time (such as big cities) are good candidates, as are office buildings and college campuses. Innovation in Wi-Fi hardware means that those networks can handle much more data more quickly than the mobile network can.

AT&T has an extensive Wi-Fi network, available in many commercial locations such as Starbucks and Barnes and Noble. T-Mobile has its HotSpot service and Verizon's in the Wi-Fi business, too.

Third parties are doing it, too. The major cable TV companies have large networks, such as Comcast's XFinity. These companies are in a particularly good position to provide such networks to their customers because they already have extensive equipment in the areas where their customers live. Right now it's just part of their service, but it's an asset they can probably monetize through partnerships with other companies, such as cellular companies, that need it. And then there are other companies such as Boingo, which have their own networks and partner with local facilities to provide it.

A well-designed Wi-Fi network in a venue like a stadium can not only take the load off the cellular network and make your Facebook and Skype work well, but the venue and advertisers can provide new services. Think instant replay, fantasy sports opportunities, maybe even traffic reports. Because they can serve the special services almost directly to the users without having to use the public Internet, they can use huge amounts of bandwidth efficiently. Imagine having eight replay angles available 10 seconds after the play. One vendor I recently spoke with called stadiums the "extreme sports" of the wireless networking business.

There are many companies in the business of providing Wi-Fi hardware and software for crowded areas. The big dog is Cisco, which calls this "high-density Wi-Fi". It even has a stadium-specific product line called Cisco Connected Stadium Wi-Fi.

But there are many smaller companies providing high-end products in this area and there are more applications of mobile data offloading than stadiums. A carrier will likely want to put Wi-Fi on and around its busiest cells.

Once you connect to a public Wi-Fi network, you'll connect automatically thereafter if it is in range. But in most cases you have to click at least once to accept an agreement. Many users will not even notice that they have to do this, but others might be confused by the interaction.

Aptilo networks attempts to solve this problem by automatically authenticating users based on the ID in their mobile SIM card. These sorts of functions are defined in the 802.11u standard, which turns multiple characteristics of the user and networks into a sort of super-SSID.

Aptilo explains more about how it all works in this webinar:

Wi-Fi is critical to the networking business. Demands on it are increasing at an astonishing pace and the industry seems to keep improving Wi-Fi to keep up. The newest emerging standard is 802.11ac, which will support gigabit wireless--theoretically up to 6.93Gb. Although products are already out--the Netgear 6300, for example--claiming compliance with the standard in its present state, the final standard is likely a year or more away.

Both demand and supply of wireless networking are set for explosive growth over the next several years. The day might come when we no longer think of our wireless devices as being somehow less powerful than our computers. It might come soon.

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