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Should operators choose Wi-Fi or femtocells to offload traffic?

Steven Hartley | July 5, 2010
Femtocell summit highlights co-existence, despite entrenched feelings to the contrary among specialists

Mobile data traffic offload has been in focus recently. First, AT&T announced a Wi-Fi Hot Zone around Times Square; second was this years Femtocell World Summit; and finally the 2010 Femtocell Awards were announced. Each highlights how offloading traffic is far from a one-size-fits-all remedy.

AT&Ts Wi-Fi focus stresses the importance of flaunting what youve got

AT&T has created a mesh Wi-Fi network, or Hot Zone, covering the Times Square area of Manhattan in New York. Customers will be seamlessly connected and roam between the access points that make up the zone, thereby diverting traffic from the mobile network.

AT&Ts approach is interesting, because it has been very careful to communicate that this move is a result of a lack of spectrum rather than network capacity in the area. Times Square is one of the busiest city areas in the world. Ultimately, network infrastructure capacity is constrained by economics and AT&T is working to resolve this. However, spectrum, aside from allocation by a regulator, is a finite resource limited by the laws of physics. Therefore, it is important to note that operators can be driven to take tactical measures that may not be appropriate for others in different situations.

The announcement also highlights a key finding in our recently published report The role of public access Wi-Fi in mobile operator strategy. Wi-Fi is a useful offloading technique only if it is available cost effectively. If not, it is a parallel network that adds network costs and management complexity. AT&Ts existing Wi-Fi footprint has been somewhat underutilized for years. However, since the launch of its seamless connectivity client for smartphones in June 2009, usage has increased by two and a half times. The importance of seamless integration within the device to stimulate usage is also readily apparent.

Femtocell summit highlights co-existence, despite entrenched feelings to the contrary among specialists

The Femtocell World Summit was held in London at the end of June and showed how far the femtocell sector has evolved during the past two years. Operators were present to talk about their experiences in trials and major vendors pitched end-to-end solutions. This is all a long way from femtocell specialists dominating the agenda.

Nearly all operator femtocell experience today concerns coverage rather than offload. However, we believe that the business model will need to evolve to a capacity play in order for the technology to be viable for operators. This was reflected at the summit, which saw several speakers discussing the femtocell versus Wi-Fi debate, albeit in a home context rather than the public access being addressed by AT&T.

Nonetheless, as we concluded in our report Femtocell market update: slow but steady progress, there was a growing consensus at the event that femtocells and Wi-Fi will ultimately co-exist. The femtocell specialist vendors most vehemently clung to the belief that femto is best unsurprisingly, given their vested interests. However, as noted above, Wi-Fi assets exist today and operators would be foolhardy to ignore them if they have them. Conversely, femtocell offload strategies are simply not here now.


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