If you believe the headlines, there’s a Rocky vs. Apollo Creed battle brewing in the telecom space, wherein operators must decide between 5G and Wi-Fi 6 technology. But the reality is that telecom operators have cause to anticipate and develop plans for utilizing both technologies, in many cases using them in tandem.
Doing so actually creates some pretty exciting opportunities for operators – think Rocky working with Apollo’s son, Adonis, in Creed – and the relationship between Wi-Fi 6 and 5G becomes much clearer for operators.
First, the basics. Wi-Fi 6 is the new common name for the IEEE 802.11ax standard. It’s fast, with theoretical data speeds of up to 9.6 Gigabits per second (Gbps), has better range and includes beamforming capabilities so there are fewer dead zones in homes and offices. Additionally, Wi-Fi 6 features Target Wake Time (TWT), which promotes longer battery life for connected devices. Taken together, it’s better Wi-Fi technology for everything from homes to sporting arenas to smart cities, and vendors like Cisco, Ruckus, HPE Aruba, already have Wi-Fi 6 routers on the market.
But just like those characters in the Rocky movies, telecom operators need to embrace a fundamental reality: Wi-Fi is the most ubiquitous wireless technology in the world, and both consumers and enterprises expect it from operators. The imperative, then, is for operators to rise to the challenge to overcome unproductive, outdated business strategies and embrace this new technology, integrating it in the smartest ways possible to become a champion for customers.
Get off the ropes
In many ways, operators are on the proverbial ropes with their networks: data traffic has increased more than a hundredfold over the past 10 years without a corresponding increase in revenue growth; supply has outpaced demand, thanks in large part to package deals with unlimited connectivity; and competitive pressures from other operators and over-the-top (OTT) services have further reduced prices. Meanwhile, many operators are rushing to deploy 5G networks, while their 4G networks are far from complete.
Wi-Fi 6 gives operators what they need to distinguish their 5G networks competitively and generate additional revenue opportunities. By embracing Wi-Fi 6 and 5G, operators have new ways to optimize traffic across access networks. For instance, operators can direct traffic to the interface that supports the best user experience or the most efficient use of network resources, based on operator policy or on real-time network conditions, traffic or application type.
But Wi-Fi 6 opens other possibilities for operators. As a recent WBA white paper illustrates, it can be integrated into 5G networks at multiple levels – devices, access and core, and different tools can be used for different types of integration. That opens possibilities for operators to differentiate service offerings for home and business markets, while also developing new revenue strategies. It’s important to remember that half of IP traffic across all devices is delivered via Wi-Fi; in a 5G world, operators can use Wi-Fi 6 to take advantage of improvements in capacity, coverage and performance to support lucrative use cases like the Internet of Things (IoT), Industry 4.0 and connected cars.
Operators that give data and voice access to subscribers and guests over Wi-Fi also benefit. In high-density areas, Wi-Fi is a great offload technology to ease congestion in the macro cellular network. And even this scenario gives operators a number of different revenue strategies, as they can build and operate this kind of hotspot infrastructure, connect through hotspots managed by neutral hosts, or do so with enterprises or other venues.
In the near term on 5G networks, Wi-Fi offload will continue to generate massive cost savings for operators, especially for residential and enterprise networks that aren’t owned by the service provider. Down the road, operators will have to balance traffic from wireless access interfaces to ensure optimal user experience and network resource utilization. The key is that Wi-Fi 6 and 5G will work in tandem to enable operators to use policy to allocate traffic flows to the best access interface, taking into account real-time network conditions and user demand.
Winning the purse
Next-generation hotspot (NGH) and Passpoint are industry-wide solutions that streamline network access in Wi-Fi hotspots, and they also hold promise for operators to generate revenue. Not only does NGH-Passpoint enable seamless Wi-Fi roaming & Wi-Fi Offload for carriers and Wi-Fi operators, it’s a framework to deploy new services, and it supports more efficient use of network resources, while also improving user experience.
Without question, Wi-Fi gives operators strong revenue earning options. Take, for instance, Wi-Fi roaming hubs, intermediaries for Wi-Fi operators to connect with the home service providers. Already being created by some vendors, these hubs serve as online platforms for both wholesale negotiation and contractual agreements between Wi-Fi operators and service providers.
By charging for access, Wi-Fi operators widen their reach and generate additional revenue, while also improving customer quality of experience (QoE). Hubs enlarge hotspot footprint for service providers and give them another valuable tool for cellular offload.
It’s also important to understand the revenue impact that Wi-Fi 6 will have on IoT. By 2021, machine to machine (M2M) IoT connections will account for more than half of all wireless connections. IoT devices already outnumber smartphones; in fact, it’s estimated that the number of IoT devices will be twice that of smartphones by 2020.
By combining Wi-Fi 6 and 5G, the always-on devices on the Internet of Things have the signal strength they need. The high-capacity networks that carry IoT traffic are no longer crowded, and IoT devices use all of the benefits of Wi-Fi 6 to send more information and use less power, while creating and storing massive amounts of data in the cloud.
Operators have even more opportunity in the cloud, where they can modify applications in real time. Operators also will combine Wi-Fi, 5G and cloud assets like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning programs to monetize and support applications in healthcare, manufacturing and other promising fields.
The end result of it all is that mobile operators are no longer limited by that litany of negative market forces that have threatened to overwhelm for so long. 5G, Wi-Fi, cloud technology – so much many opportunities are converging right now – and they deliver the knockout punch that operators need to leave the past behind.