Wi-Fi and Cellular Gradually Growing Together

Carl Weinschenk

Technologies, like people, continually grow and evolve. Most of the time, the growth is subtle and escapes notice. In the case of a technology, often it is a small adjustment that cleans up some interference or extends coverage a short distance farther than before.

However, growth also is marked by dramatic bursts. The world of Wi-Fi is undergoing one of those bursts. This week, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced that it has started the certification program for its Passpoint program. The goal of Passpoint is to enable Wi-Fi devices to automatically discover and connect to a Passpoint-enabled hotspot. The annoying need to log in and out continually will be over for users of devices employing Passpoint.

Passpoint, the release said, is part of the bigger drive to the Hotspot 2.0 specification. GigaOm, in its story on Passpoint, outlined what Wi-Fi must grow to be. The goal is to integrate cellular and Wi-Fi services into one interrelated service platform:

Passpoint/Hotspot 2.0 is the first step of many that will eventually integrate Wi-Fi hotspots seamlessly into the carrier’s mobile networks. Networks will be able to pass subscribers from cell site to hotspot and back again as Wi-Fi gets incorporated into the increasingly diverse array of small cells that will make up future heterogeneous networks, or HetNets. That’s still a long time coming though.

In this context, Passpoint and Hotspot 2.0 can be seen as nice bits of incremental progress. Just as various flavors of cell types are merging and being generalized into the small cell category, the differences between cellular and Wi-Fi will fade as the two blend together.

The blending will be multilevel: On the subscriber side, mobile device users will move from cell to Wi-Fi and back again as they move around the house, the town and the neighborhood and the country. On the other end, the telephone industry is gratefully utilizing the unlicensed (and therefore inexpensive) Wi-Fi infrastructure to relieve the intense pounding their networks are taking.

A report this month from Heavy Reading shows how popular Wi-Fi offload is becoming with operators. Likewise, research from ABI Research suggests that carrier Wi-Fi equipment will reach $2.2 billion in 2017, a growth factor of eight over the current size of the market. Carrier Wi-Fi is defined as Wi-Fi services that are offered to customers directly by carriers or through service providers with which those carriers are working.

The bottom line is that the different access technologies will be all but inseparable and even the appearance of there being much of a difference will fade over time. That’s how growth is: One day, access points are trafficking data a tad faster, and the next they are packing to leave for college.

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