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WiFi Offloading To Skyrocket

Cellular carriers will offload nearly 60% of mobile data traffic to WiFi networks over the next four years, according to a new study from Juniper Research.

Carriers in North America and Western Europe will be responsible for over 75% of the global mobile data being offloaded in the next four years, Juniper said. The amount of smartphone and tablet data traffic on WiFi networks will will increase to more than 115,000 petabytes by 2019, compared to under 30,000 petabytes this year, representing almost a four-fold increase.

WiFi offloading, also called carrier WiFi, has become pervasive as many big cellular carriers and ISPs have deployed large numbers of WiFi hotspots in cities using the existing infrastructure of their customers’ homes and businesses. This enables carriers to offload the saturated bandwidth on 3G and LTE networks.

Figures for 2013 put the total number of Wi-Fi hotspots owned by mobile operators worldwide at 6.5 million. That number is forecast to grow 62% by 2018 to 10.5 million.

The Juniper report stresses that small cells -- femtocells, or low-power cellular base stations typically designed for use in a home or small business -- will account for an increasing share of the data offloaded.

"With WiFi-integrated small cells, seamless data services can be extended to non-cellular devices as well, such as cameras and WiFi-only tablets, offering operators the opportunity to develop new revenue streams," wrote Nitin Bhas, head of research at Juniper Research.

WiFi offloading currently offers a good solution to cellular data bottlenecks, but operators cannot rely solely on residential customers to carry the bulk of the data.

“Operators need to deploy [their] own WiFi zones in problematic areas or partner with WiFi hotspot operators and aggregators such as iPass and Boingo,” Bhas added.

The capacity of the 2.4GHz band is reaching its limit. Studies at the University of Twente in The Netherlands have demonstrated that the growing number of WiFi devices using unlicensed bands is seriously affecting network efficiency. Capacity is compromised by the number of simultaneously active devices, with transmission speeds dropping as much as 20% of the nominal value. With the number of IoT and M2M applications using WiFi continuously rising, that could become a serious problem soon.

Most residential customers are using the default WiFi router supplied by the ISP, which is commonly a basic 802.11n device working on 2.4 GHz. One solution ISPs have used is to start shipping 802.11ac WiFi routers, enabling their customers to switch to the less crowded 5 GHz band.

For mobile operators, WiFi has moved from being a threat -- an enabler of additional competition in the hands of wireline carriers or startups -- to a significant opportunity to meet the demands of their customers in a high quality yet cost effective way.

While the report suggests that 50% of the world's data traffic being offloaded will be in the US and Western Europe, it also points out that developing markets, such as India, are experiencing a significant surge in mobile data usage, with some carriers doubling it year over year.

Because those countries lack a robust wired telecom infrastructure (both on landlines and fiber), it's much more difficult for their carriers to offload data to WiFi. In many developing markets, most consumers do not have any landline and rely exclusively on cellular data for internet access.