Tomorrow’s Connected World: why Wifi and cellular convergence is crucial

06 September 2021 | Tiago Rodrigues

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Tiago Rodrigues

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Whether it’s smart cities or Industry 4.0, Tiago Rodrigues, CEO of the Wireless Broadband Alliance, explains why seamless onboarding and convergence are key to success

With Wi-Fi 6 and 5G currently being rolled out at a comparable rate, the next generation of connectivity is finally beginning to emerge. Traditionally, the two technologies have been at odds with one another, but as new potential use cases emerge and the tsunami of data-driven devices becomes unstoppable, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that a dual approach will be needed if enhanced throughput, connection density, coverage and, above all, accessibility, are to be truly realised.

Is it time for vendors and cellular operators to stop trying to gain market control from Wifi and instead realise the mutual benefits that can be had from convergence? The world “mutual” is key here. One of the benefits of convergence is that it stands to benefit both Wifi vendors and cellular operators, while also providing countless new opportunities for businesses. It’s also a key stepping-stone towards a more connected consumer world, ultimately facilitating OpenRoaming and improving the connectivity experience across the board.

What do operators stand to gain from convergence?
For mobile network operators (MNOs), convergence will offer improved visibility into Wifi networks, giving them unparalleled control over the quality of service (QoS) and overall experience they can offer customers. MNOs are also excellently placed to provide Wifi network management solutions to large enterprise customers, giving them an additional potential revenue stream. Wifi operators, meanwhile, will be able to more easily offload traffic and find new opportunities for monetisation. Convergence will also allow Wifi operators to bridge the connectivity gaps between fixed networks and operator-provided 5G services. Naturally, for this to occur, attention will need to be drawn to the issue of authentication and secure, automatic onboarding between mobile and Wifi networks.

As well as being mutually beneficial, the technologies are also likely to become dependent on one another in the bid to achieve maximum coverage and attract the largest number of businesses and end-users. Some of the use cases being presented to businesses as convergence are pitched assuming convergence to be a core part of the picture, and the more these businesses cases are realised and capitalised on, the closer we will inch towards converged connectivity. In particular, mobile operators are going to need convergence with Wifi technology if the visions for 5G are to be realised.
In Europe, which is one of the most developed carrier markets in the world, 5G will account for only roughly 34% of total mobile connections by 2025. Globally, 5G penetration is still expected to hover around 20% as we approach the end of the decade. Fixed Wifi networks are therefore going to be critical to 5G’s long-term success and sustainability.

What new use cases will convergence open up?
We’ve touched on some of the benefits of convergence for MNOs and Wifi vendors as things currently stand, but what new opportunities will be created at the network and RAN layers that are currently just out of reach? From basic enterprise use cases through to manufacturing, robotics, AR, VR, public hotspots and even residential applications, the opportunities for businesses across a range of verticals are almost too numerous to count. That’s not to mention the rise of smart cities and edge computing, which will require strong connectivity infrastructure for the processing and transfer of large data volumes.

For example, let’s look at enterprise Wifi and the opportunity for mobile operators to provide more seamless onboarding. Enterprise Wifi deployments are primarily used to give employees and visitors access to the internet, but only if certain restrictions are accepted and conditions met. Policy controls, terms of service and regulatory compliance around data sharing must all be factored in before an employee or visitor can have use of the network. However, most mobile networks will have already ensured that their subscribers have accepted terms of service and usage policies, and all will have to ensure regulatory compliance as a matter of course.

A mobile operator that offloads data on to Wifi will be able to have visibility of that network and their customer, and it will be able to control the overall user experience. This is just one example of how 5G and Wifi connectivity can complement one another instead of competing, providing an overall better service to customers as a result.

Industry 4.0 and its increasing dependency on low-power wide-area networks to power machine learning and AI-powered tools is another area that can benefit from convergence. 5G and Wifi can be used simultaneously to provide improved connectivity, traffic routing and support for machinery, both with and without identity credentials.

So-called smart cities that are beginning to emerge are also being designed in a way that could really take advantage of 5G and Wifi convergence. Passpoint-enabled technology such as OpenRoaming can completely remove the need for end-users to repeatedly enter their credentials as they migrate from one Wifi hotspot to the next, as they hop seamlessly from fixed network to cloud and back again. New endeavours such as the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) and its OpenWiFi initiative point to yet another win for the disaggregation of Wifi and the removal of vendor lock-in, which could give individual businesses more control over how they deliver Wifi to end users.

Integration of Wifi and 5G technologies will no doubt come with its fair share of challenges, but those challenges are already being addressed. As we emerge into a new world of connectivity, we can be sure that both Wifi and cellular technologies will play critical roles in improving end-to-end network performance, optimising the customer experience and creating new business opportunities for mobile and Wifi operators alike.