It is an unequivocal fact that licensed spectrum for mobile operators is in short supply. It is a contributing factor to the run of research on how to wring as much as possible from the available spectrum. One possibility is to utilise Wi-Fi networks to take up the slack.

Wi-Fi generally tends to offer a much higher bandwidth than 4G can provide. A Wi-Fi network is connected via a cable to the core network. A wired connection will almost always provide a faster connection than wireless. Wi-Fi networks operate in unlicensed bands, and worldwide they use the same frequency bands. This makes it easier for mobile operators to bundle Wi-Fi networks into their networks.

The problem with using Wi-Fi networks has traditionally been pretty cut and dried. Free Wi-Fi access points are not controlled by the mobile operator, and you may also have to manually switch your phone or tablet to take advantage of free Wi-Fi access points. The ideal solution would be to have a way for mobile operators and operators of large Wi-Fi networks to have some type of roaming and data offload. This is where the groups Wi-Fi Alliance and Wireless Broadband Alliance come in.

HotSpot 2.0 and NGH technologies

The Wi-Fi alliance uses the HotSpot 2.0 technology, while the Wireless Broadband Alliance uses the Next Generation Hotspot technology. The two technologies can be woven in together. The HotSpot 2.0 technology aims to give authentication to the Wi-Fi network itself. The user authenticates using certificates or a SIM. The Wireless Broadband Alliance aims to further extend this to allow more mobile operator features, such as roaming and billing. A further aim is being able to roam from a Wi-Fi network to a 4G network and back. Mobile operators see this as a plus, as they are able to move users from a congested cell onto a Wi-Fi network.

The recently concluded Next Generation Hotspot conference has thrown up some interesting statistics. One is that carriers are beginning to comprehend the possibilities offered by offloading some of the traffic to Wi-Fi hotspots. A report done by Maravedis-Rethink suggests that operators are expecting that 22% of data capacity growth will come from to Wi-Fi networks in 2013-2014. The report also suggests the growing confidence of Tier 1 mobile operators in using Wi-Fi networks as part of an integrated solution to solve data bottlenecks.

Another interesting fact that came out of the report concerned the numbers for operators of Wi-Fi networks. Six of the hotspot owners reported one million or more locations for Wi-Fi hotspots; twenty seven reported over one thousand. For operators seeking data offloads to Wi-Fi networks, this represents a huge resource, provided data roaming agreements can be made.

The use of Next Generation Hotspot represents a new area of growth for mobile technologies. The Wi-Fi Global Congress this week ran a live Next Generation Hotspot network at its conference in Beijing. Boingo Wireless has recently launched a Next Generation Hotspot network at Chicago O’Hare Airport, and in doing so has become the first commercial operator.

There are still challenges to be overcome before Next Generation Hotpots become a viable addition to the field of mobile broadband, but the pace of take up is accelerating. As the report suggests, the use of Wi-Fi hotspots by operators to alleviate data bottlenecks is likely to grow in 2014 and beyond.