Most of the operators in the region are applying offloading solutions, the customers demand more capacity as mobile video consumption has significantly increased and it is expected to grow even more.
“Capacity injection will rapidly become a challenge as mobile video consumption reaches threshold levels. Operators usually rely on different methodologies for capacity injection: Incremental Cell Deployment (new build), Spectrum Management (new spectrum, farming existing spectrum), Deployment of new technologies (LTE Unicast/Multicast), Optimised Delivery Management (Adaptive Video Quality, Adaptive Buffering, Cashing, Coding, Transcoding.) and WiFi Overlay,” said Abdulrahhman Addas, partner at Bain & Company.
In order to face this demand, WiFi offload is one of the options that operators are applying to overcome this challenge. “The demand for WiFi offloading solutions is dictated by the demand for mobile data and not based on geographical location. Wherever there is higher concentration of data usage, WiFi offloading solutions presents itself as a viable solution,” said Saleem AlBalooshi, executive vice president of Network Development and Operations at du.
Experts agree that the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are the countries with the greatest need for this solution, as the data usage is expected to grow exponentially.
Sony John, analyst at IDC, commented: “In Saudi Arabia, STC, Zain and Mobily all have embarked on some level of WiFi offload using Carrier WiFi. For example, in 2013 itself, STC had about 7% of its total mobile traffic being offloaded onto Carrier WiFi while Zain revealed plans for 1,000 small cells in the coming years. Mobily too had similar plans for WiFi off load with a goal of about 20% of its mobile-broadband traffic offloaded onto WiFi networks.”
“WiFi offload is a specific case of using WiFi technologies for broadband services. WiFi offload tends to be most needed when spectrum resources are scarce and consumer/business user's usage is high. Various countries fit into this category in the Middle East (example UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, regions of Saudi, etc.). Other WiFi models as revenue generating services or complement to 3G and 4G will also be used in other regions,” added Dr Riad Hartani, partner at Xona.
According to AlBalooshi, the latest WiFi technology can support up-to 1.2Gbps for a range of 24 metre radius, while through the macro layer using LTE-A, it can reach theoretically reach 300Mbps with a site coverage of one kilometre.
“In general, the capacity contribution of WiFi hotspots has the advantage of adding capacity to the exact location where capacity is needed (targeted locations) where the macro layer cannot fulfil such traffic demands,” he added.
As AlBalooshi said, WiFi offload provides a feasible solution for targeted locations, something that the GSMA highlights to operators. The global organisation notes that WiFi provides an “invaluable” complement to cellular in the delivery of high quality broadband services to smartphone users, particularly indoors.
“Cellular offers high performance, wide area blanket coverage but does not always cover indoor locations well. WiFi fills these gaps at venues where local owners and users need improved coverage and access speed. However, we see little evidence that today’s WiFi networks significantly reduce traffic levels on the cellular network,” states the GSMA.
According to Addas, WiFi has emerged as the best solution in the near term especially in highly congested areas or attractive areas but difficult to cover. He believes that customers perceive WiFi as higher quality than cellular and it provides fastest time-to-market and lowest cost of deployment and management.
The GSMA highlights that the prospects for WiFi delivering significant capacity relief in areas where cellular network is facing congestion, but these spaces are limited.
Hartani also sets challenges for operators and believes that the main problem is on the business front, as telcos need to have the right partnership and monetisation and ROI models need to be figured out.
“Once that (solving problems on the business side) is done, the technical solutions can be adapted accordingly. Still, the association of WiFi with best effort and low cost is something the operators need to take into account in their models. The other challenge has to do with the aspects related to QoS and security in WiFi networks, and ways of mapping that to a commercial service,” he continued.
As Hartani said, security is one of the challenges that operators are facing. To tackle it, he proposed various models. “Either providing a seamless service where WiFi users will see the same applications/services experience as in cellular (going via the operator's core network) or by directly connecting to the Internet over WiFi for internet based services. In both models, various connectivity methods, including security mechanisms do exist and are being deployed. New challenges need to be overcome, but state of the art has evolved significantly and a lot of the challenges can be overcome with existing solutions.”
Al Balooshi said that this connectivity is fully compliant with 3GPP standards and users are authenticated using SIM card. “As long as this process is adhered to, connectivity will be secure.”