WiFi Offload: Time for a Single Node Solution for Both 3G and 4G Data Offloading

Most mobile operators have begun to take WiFi offload seriously, whether it is at the implementation, pilot or PowerPoint phase. At this stage in the game, widespread WiFi offload is almost a certainty in the relatively near future. But 3G, 4G and WiFi are still not necessarily playing nicely together in carrier equipment. Arguably the major problem is that most carrier equipment cannot handle both 3G and 4G offload simultaneously, putting the supposedly seamless handoff between access technologies further into the future. In this article, we will discuss the need for 3G and 4G WiFi offload to be handled from a single node and why now is the right time to address this as 4G rollouts proliferate.

Starting from the beginning - the impetus for WiFi offloading is clear. With the massive growth in smartphones and tablets, mobile data consumption is rising fast. It is predicted that by 2017 wireless data traffic will have risen by 300%, with growth driven by video streaming, music streaming, social networking and internet browsing. With more and more subscribers becoming data-heavy users of smartphones and tablets, network operators are under increasing strain as they struggle with the increased demand while still needing to provide a great experience for their subscribers.

Most mobile data is currently accessed via 3G globally, and with its limited spectrum, this inevitably presents problems.  The future of mobile data is clearly shifting towards 4G with its greater bandwidth and data throughput – and it will alleviate some of the burden on 3G networks. Nonetheless, 4G rollouts will take years to become ubiquitous, even in mature markets. Even then, we need to understand the lessons of the past and realize that the more bandwidth is offered, the more people will use it and find more data-hungry applications to fill the spectrum.

Data offloading provides a cost effective solution to address bandwidth and network capacity limitations that not only helps reduce CAPEX and OPEX requirements but also helps in improving the overall customer experience. It does this by reducing the amount of data on the core network by routing selected traffic through alternate channels, which in turn helps in reducing the total number of nodes required, thereby minimizing cost and improving ROI. WiFi itself is an extremely cost effective technology that is available almost ubiquitously, making WiFi offloading the most attractive offloading technique.

However, offloading absolutely needs to apply as much as it does to 4G as it does to 3G. Currently, 3G offloading is becoming more widespread, while 4G offloading is relatively nascent but will of course increase over time, as 4G networks themselves proliferate. The description of “seamless” WiFi handoffs is used a lot, but without handing off both 3G and 4G traffic, seamless WiFi offload cannot really exist – because it only addresses part of the problem. The approach of having separate 3G and 4G nodes doing separate jobs presents its own problems too because of the signalling confusion it creates. The resulting impact on the subscriber’s experience will be negative as competing, “well-intentioned” nodes are likely to disrupt their experience rather than improve it.

The solution is having a single node that handles the switching between all three access technologies – 3G, 4G, and WiFi, as this is the only set-up that can provide seamless switching, thus giving the user the best experience, while reducing the network operational cost. As advanced markets continue their 4G rollouts, now the onus is on network equipment manufacturers to put in place the infrastructure for end-to-end WiFi offload.

It is therefore clear that what is needed in this transitional phase and beyond is a single node that can handle all three.  The demand for 3G and 4G offloading is only going to increase, to deal with the increasing data demands on both 3G and 4G networks. With 4G rollouts gathering pace all around the world the time is perfect for a single node to be able to handle all three complementary access technologies. The benefits for subscribers, and subsequently for networks is huge, as subscribers can have the best experience, and networks benefit from reduced network load, reduced subscriber churn and because of there being only one node, reduced cost as well. If networks are to optimize their 4G rollouts then a single node, able to handle 3G and 4G offload, is crucial.

For more information on Aricent’s 3G and 4G WiFi offloading solution please contact us at info@aricent.com.

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