The New Wireless Battleground: Carrier Wi-Fi
The battle lines are being drawn. From “Un-carrier” strategies to “Framily” plans, the big four U.S. carriers have put their marketing into high gear to retain and gain customers to ensure continued revenue from consumer data consumption in this post-voice revenue era.
Until recently, once a consumer chose the carrier that offered their desired device, that carrier locked the customer into a contract and had near-complete control of their experience out-of-home. Beyond data revenue, the shared data plans and “carrier break-up” letter campaigns share a commonality. They are focused on keeping control of the consumer, their devices and data, through a device’s cellular radio.
The focus on keeping control of the licensed spectrum radio to rack up cellular data ignores the other half of the customer experience – the one delivered through the unlicensed spectrum Wi-Fi radio in mobile devices. With the rising cost of data, Wi-Fi increased in popularity with consumers. A recent New Street Research study found that the share of U.S. smartphone data traffic traveling over Wi-Fi increased from 15 to 63 percent between 2011 and 2013, and a recent Comcast survey found that consumers would choose Wi-Fi over free food at retail locations.
Many device manufacturers and carriers are enabling consumers’ Wi-Fi connectivity behaviors by offering supportive services, like Wi-Fi calling. Apple announced that iOS 8 will support Wi-Fi calling, and T-Mobile pledged to roll it out to its users, ultimately covering more than 90 percent of its total subscriber base.
These steps provide significant benefits and increased consumer choice. Non-traditional carriers are taking more aggressive steps to embrace consumers’ desire for Wi-Fi and provide a better experience, while ultimately developing a better understanding of connected behaviors. The potential “secret sauce” in these truly “un-carrier” deployments is Passpoint technology.
Passpoint technology offers the simplicity and security of cellular and does away with the need for logins, webpage redirects and wading through SSIDs to select the right network. It drastically improves the customer experience and makes the shift between cellular and Wi-Fi seamless to the end user.
Further, the technology allows carriers, device manufacturers and other operators – any entity that can push a Passpoint profile out to a customer – to control the connectivity experience by choosing when, where and for how long a consumer shifts between the cellular and Wi-Fi network. Once a Passpoint profile is installed, the consumer can immediately and securely log into any Passpoint hotspot within an operator or operator partner network.
This functionality has been rumored to be at the heart of Google Access initiatives reported this spring. Sources reported that Google is working on a SMB program to layer in Passpoint connectivity, allowing the company to see connections at a variety of locations and share this information with small business venues. Google is also rumored to be working on an app for Android and iOS that will leverage Passpoint, where users log in at one hotspot with Google credentials and will be automatically logged in at Google networks at thousands of locations across the U.S., including Starbucks.
Trailblazing non-traditional carriers have already gone beyond concept and into commercial implementation. Time Warner Cable (TWC) expanded its Wi-Fi network rapidly, and launched Passpoint network access at 33,000 hotspots throughout the U.S. The company signed a bilateral Passpoint network roaming agreement with Boingo, which will be live in 2014, making Boingo’s Passpoint enabled airports available to TWC subscribers, and the TWC network available to Boingo customers.
Still other non-traditional connectivity behemoths are taking their Wi-Fi commitment even further. Time Warner’s prospective parent company, Comcast, aggressively expanded its Wi-Fi footprint, with a goal of more than eight million Wi-Fi hotspots live nationwide by the end of 2014. With this massive Wi-Fi network, the company claimed in its April filing to the FCC that “a ubiquitous Wi-Fi network built by Comcast could make a 'Wi-Fi-first' service, which combines commercial mobile radio service with Wi-Fi, a more viable alternative” for consumers.
As IDC analyst Carrie MacGillivray noted earlier this year, Wi-Fi offers new operators the opportunity to compete head-to-head with the leading mobile carriers. Consumer appetites for Wi-Fi connectivity are growing. With Passpoint technology, providers have the ability to provide a better, cellular-like experience making complete use of mobile device radios, and to glean a deeper understanding of consumer connectivity behaviors, patterns and data.
Major carriers and some manufacturers are caught in a “chicken and egg” dilemma, waiting for more devices to support Passpoint, and more Passpoint networks to launch, respectively. Yet, non-traditional carriers have seen an opportunity to move consumer wireless services forward.
Only time will tell who will win the hearts and minds of mobile consumers – and connectivity control of their devices. But the more nimble tech giants and upstarts alike have a head start.