Cable MSOs’ commitments to Wi-Fi network expansion position them to compete aggressively in the wireless broadband arena provided they implement tools that can be used to maximize subscriber experience and opportunities for monetization as their strategies evolve.
The expansion of Wi-Fi into millions of homes, offices and public Wi-Fi hotspots together with the emergence of a vast and mature ecosystem encompassing devices of every description has established Wi-Fi as the most heavily used wireless technology in the world – even by devices specifically designed for cellular services. As reflected in a recent report from research firm Mobidia, Wi-Fi now accounts for 63.4 percent of all smartphone-originated data traffic within the United States.
Consequently, Wi-Fi technology is ideally suited to cable operators’ needs to balance costs with opportunistic evolution, enabling them to deliver significant benefits to subscribers from the outset while supporting more ambitious strategies over time in conjunction with new roaming, cellular offload and MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) partnership affiliations. But in order to realize the full benefits of this evolutionary flexibility, operators must be able to:
- optimize hotspot placements with pinpoint accuracy;
- maintain awareness of all wireless access options for each user at each instance of engagement with the operator’s services;
- manage client-side network access decisions such as handoffs between Wi-Fi and mobile connections to ensure that subscribers are connected at data rates matched to individual usage scenarios, from text messaging to high-quality video reception;
- easily implement new relationship- and service-driven policies through centralized control of all parameters that determine client-side network decision processes;
- maintain vigilant analysis of user experience and usage trends across all access points.
MSOs are discovering all these capabilities and more can be achieved with deployment of the sohisticated data aggregation and access management platform developed by WeFi, the supplier of mobile and Wi-Fi connectivity solutions to leading service providers worldwide. For example, Time Warner Cable is deploying WeFi’s enhanced Access Network Discovery and Selection Function (WeANDSF) toolset to deliver a best-in-class wireless data service to its subscribers as well as to provide guidance for ongoing deployments of hotspots in TWC service areas.
WeANDSF comprises a wide range of functions that leverage a constantly expanding database of information detailing wireless connection options and usage metrics across 150 million Wi-Fi hotspots worldwide. This visibility into usage patterns allows operators to maximize the value of their investments in Wi-Fi by implementing hotspots where subscribers will benefit most and where their hotspots will be of greatest use for offload deals and other affiliations with mobile carriers.
Equally important, WeANDSF orchestrates real-time selection of user connections through a powerful cloud-based decision engine that interconnects with the core database and millions of software clients running on user devices. This allows operators to set policies that determine how device clients choose connections in accord with a wide range of parameters related to rules of engagement with MNO and MVNO partners and to bandwidth availability across multiple fixed and mobile wireless access points.
Such capabilities also serve as the foundation to operators’ opportunities to monetize their Wi-Fi deployments through relationships with mobile network operators (MNOs). The WeANDSF platform’s visibility into access options and bandwidth availability at each hotspot facilitates planning and execution of mobile traffic offloads in deals with MNOs and MVNOs as well as on-the-fly handoffs tied to operators’ MVNO deals with MNOs. It also helps operators and their MNO customers identify ideal high-usage locations for small cell overlays that can benefit from cable plant backhaul capacity.
In the case of TWC, the operator’s initial use of WeANDSF is focused on executing network management policies and priorities that optimize utilization of all types of Wi-Fi networks, including hotspots deployed by TWC and its CableWiFi partners, access points in home and office networks and other options available from Wi-Fi and cellular sources. In addition, by leveraging the platform’s ability to analyze massive amounts of real-time data on hotspot locations and current conditions, TWC is able to make whatever adjustments are necessary in any given area to maximize the quality of each user’s experience.
TWC and other operators implementing WeANDSF will be able to tap these and other capabilities to support ever more sophisticated business models, new service features and additional partner affiliations as their networks and service strategies evolve. The technology and market trends shaping these strategies and the many functions built into the WeFi platform to support them are addressed at length in the discussion that follows.
Facilitating the Multiscreen Service Agenda
The Wi-Fi TV Everywhere Service Opportunity
Operator owned and managed Wi-Fi hotspots have emerged as a core component of MSOs’ multiscreen service strategies, where the goal is to maximize subscriber retention by combining the convenience of free subscriber access to cable-branded hotspots with extended reach of premium TV channels and on-demand content beyond the home. For most operators, executing on this strategy with ongoing hotspot buildouts in conjunction with implementing the content licenses, security mechanisms and streaming infrastructure essential to realizing their multiscreen TV Everywhere goals is the primary focus.
The benefits are obvious, as conveyed in multiple studies reflecting growing consumer reliance on connected devices to access TV shows and movies outside as well as inside the home (Figure 1). For example, in one of the latest studies, Cisco Systems in December 2012 reported in in-house survey of U.S. video consumers found that the average amount of time spent consuming professionally produced video online now represents 13.8 percent of total TV viewing time, which is close to the 14.53 percent of average time spent viewing video on personal video recorders. Cisco reported that 74 percent of Internet video viewers watch TV shows online at least weekly, and 42 percent watch every day, while 52 percent watch movies weekly and 12 percent watch them daily.
Similarly, Leichtman Research Group in 2012 reported a big leap in year-to-year viewing of TV online, with 16 percent of U.S. adults watching TV shows online weekly in 2012, compared to 12 percent a year earlier and six percent in 2010. Confirming Cisco’s findings that the online viewing growth rate on tablets is the fastest among all devices, Leichtman reported the percent of U.S. adults viewing video on tablets went from two percent in 2011 to nine percent in 2012. Meanwhile, weekly video viewing on smartphones increased sharply as well, from 15 percent of adults in 2011 to 19 percent in 2012.
A large share of this viewing is taking place outside the home. According to a survey conducted by Pulse for the Cable and Telecommunications Association for Marketing in 2012, 47 percent of TV program viewing on tablets and 67 percent on smartphones by U.S. consumers aged 16 to 75 occurs outside the home.
On a global scale, Cisco, in its latest annual Video Networking Index Forecast, released in May 2012, predicted that by 2016 over half the world’s Internet traffic will be carried over Wi-Fi access links, with video, not counting file sharing, accounting for 54 percent of all consumer Internet traffic by that time. Video delivered over mobile, which accounted for just 4.56% of all consumer video traffic in 2012, will represent 17.21% of all consumer video traffic in 2016, the study said (Figure 2).
Cable operators who address this demand for multiscreen access to TV programming and movies by making premium content available to their subscribers over Wi-Fi connections are providing these users much better options with respect to both live and on-demand content than are available to non-subscribers, thus raising the appeal of subscription services. At the same time, by positioning operator-managed hotspots where subscribers need them most, operators are augmenting the value proposition by giving them free Wi-Fi access while ensuring they engage with broadband Internet through the operator’s portal.
The QoE Challenge
But operators need to go even further in differentiating their multiscreen services by providing a superior quality of experience. In fact, the ability to meet TV quality standards as defined for small-screen devices is a key factor in operators’ ability to win licensing support for out-of-home distribution of premium content from their programming affiliates.
Sustained, consistent QoE is a major challenge in an environment where a subscriber may or may not be in reach of an operator’s hotspot or those of cable roaming partners. Indeed, it can be a challenge even when the subscriber is in reach of a cable hotspot if contention levels are high or the subscriber is at the fringe of the access area where signal strength is weakest.
Adding to the challenge is the fact that each class of device requires a different minimum level of data throughput for QoE expectations to be met. Knowing each user’s device requirements in conjunction with the type of usage underway at any given moment is essential to ensuring the device connects with a Wi-Fi or mobile access point that is capable of meeting those requirements. This is an especially tricky task for cable operators who, unlike mobile carriers, don’t have control over their customers’ wireless devices.
What’s needed is an intelligent platform capable of coordinating user selection of Wi-Fi and cellular network access options in all locations at all times regardless of whether the subscriber is within reach of an operator’s hotspots. This selection process must take into account specific usage requirements, local traffic patterns and the availability of connection options to any given user as determined by policies set by the operator and by other access point providers.
The WeFi Solution
This is the role played by WeFi’s patented WeANDSF platform, which leverages proprietary technology in conjunction with the functionalities and APIs embodied in the 3GPP ANDSF standard to allow operators to direct users’ devices to the best connections no matter where they are and what the access conditions might be at a given point in time. As illustrated in Figure 3, WeANDSF consists of several key components interoperating under the direction of intelligent software that serves to optimize user experience in real time.
The WeANDSF Database and Analytics
The core ingredient to enabling the full range of capabilities embodied in WeANDSF is the unique WeFi Database, which was first developed for mobile operators to intelligently manage mobile device offloading from saturated mobile data networks to available Wi-Fi networks. Since 2005 WeFi has been accumulating and analyzing data generated by client software running on millions of devices as users go about their daily routines across the globe.
Now the world’s largest repository of such information, the WeANDSF Database describes mobile and Wi-Fi access options and degrees of congestion across all access points from the vantage of over 150 million hotspot locations worldwide. Categories of access options in addition to WeFi customers’ hotspots and cellular POPs include public hotspots available through coffee shops, restaurants, airports, hotels and other public places as well as private residential and business Wi-Fi networks. The repository also includes information about user preferences, coverage areas, network security and other parameters that influence the connectivity decisions executed by the WeFi client on each device.
The multidimensional analytics performed by WeANDSF not only provide up-to-the-minute profiles of the network options available to users in any given hotspot. They provide in-depth insight into traffic patterns, subscriber usage, network quality and many other parameters with respect to aggregate historic trends extending through the last 24-hour cycle of data collection.
All of this information is continually updated through sophisticated self-learning processes that crowd source information from existing clients and new clients as they enter the ecosystem. In addition, WeFi supports operator-specific enhancements to the database that are privately accessible by WeFi customers in instances where they make their own information layers accessible to WeFi’s UXT (User Experience Topology) interactive research tool.
The WeANDSF Client and Policy-Driven Connectivity Decision Processes
Over eight million users have downloaded the WeFi client as a free software app that helps them identify the best connection options when they’re searching for a Wi-Fi link, and millions more laptops, tablets and smartphones are interacting with the WeFi database and management system through clients that have been installed on third-party connection manager APIs or downloaded directly to devices via users’ interactions with WeFi’s mobile carrier and MSO customers.
All data generated from device clients is collected anonymously and cannot be used to breach user privacy in any way. Instead, it is used to make split-second determinations as to how each device can best be served by available wireless access options at any place and at any point in time.
The client software collects the usage and network connection data flowing in from each location and communicates with the device to activate decisions as dictated by policies implemented by the operator (Figure 4). Those policies, which operators activate on the WeANDSF Management Console, can be set and weighted across a wide range of parameters, including:
- types of network technology, accessibility of options to any given user,
- business relationships with operators of networks in the user’s location,
- the capacity parameters of each user’s service plans
- real-time and historical network performance parameters.
The WeANDSF client-based Decision Engine interacts with cloud-based or locally positioned system servers, which are the central relays for information exchanged between clients and the database. The decision process takes into account signal strength and other local access conditions together with operator policies to direct client activation of optimal cellular or Wi-Fi connectivity.
This policy information is transmitted to each device client so that when the client needs to make a connection decision offering the best possible QoE, it can do so based on how the policy parameters match up with the local real-time and historical network conditions. Types of access points included in the search for connectivity can include the emerging femtocell and small cell infrastructures as well as traditional cellular, WiMAX and Wi-Fi access points.
Device type awareness is another essential component of the WeANDSF connectivity decision process. Today’s Wi-Fi enabled devices have very different characteristics from one brand and, indeed, from one model to the next, resulting in significant variations in the data rates and usage characteristics that determine the thresholds for acceptable QoE. (The range of Wi-Fi consumption patterns on just the ten most popular Android smartphones is illustrated in Figure 5.) By knowing precisely what the bandwidth needs are for any given device in any given usage scenario WeANDSF ensures the prioritization of connectivity options takes into account the device type with each user session.
The monthly Wi-Fi usage volumes of the 10 most popular Android models among WeFi users, as recorded by the WeFi Database in February 2012, vividly illustrates the impacts specific device models have on bandwidth requirements of each user.
Along with enabling smart automatic connections to Wi-Fi and cellular access points based on predefined criteria, the software performs other crucial functions such as learning and adapting to users’ preferences and usage patterns to facilitate connectivity selections. For example, a user with an unlimited rate plan from a mobile service provider may not be incented financially to activate Wi-Fi offload, even though the switch to Wi-Fi might result in a much better data rate and QoE.
To facilitate offloading for such users, WeANDSF clients learn where and when users consume a lot of mobile data, so that, based on operator policy, the clients can switch to a better connection either automatically or by proactively prompting users to make the selection. In cases where that connection requires credentials or passwords not initially known to WeANDSF, once the user connects to such a suggested network, the system registers that information so that all subsequent connections will be automatic.
Another key client function tied to offload selection is automatic management of the on/off state of the Wi-Fi radio. Frequently, users keep the Wi-Fi switch in the off state to avoid battery drains resulting from perpetually maintaining the on position. Once the WeANDSF algorithms learn the user’s connectivity and location habits, it can switch on the Wi-Fi access function, allowing the user to conserve battery consumption while providing a seamless transfer to a Wi-Fi connection without intervention by the user.
After taking all policy factors and related connectivity information into consideration in real time, the Decision Engine determines whether an alternative connection to the one the device is on is a better choice based on anticipated performance tied to multiple historical and real-time predictors. If there is a better alternative, the system assesses the admission control requirements of that alternative to determine whether the connection can be made automatically or requires user input of passwords or sign-up information.
Support for Wi-Fi Network Planning
A key requirement for cost-effective deployment of Wi-Fi networks is the ability to precisely locate hotspots for maximum return on investment. This is very hard to do without an in-depth awareness of traffic patterns and the types of usage generating those patterns across the operator’s service area.
Operators’ access to analysis generated from the WeANDSF Database allows them to carefully plan hotspot locations in accord with their business goals, starting with immediate priorities and looking forward to filling out coverage areas over time. Along with traffic volume metrics the data includes the types of devices operating in a given location over time, the types of access points they’re connected to and the levels of usage at various times of day.
The importance of understanding what types of devices are commonly in use in a given location is illustrated by the data compiled in Figure 5 and in other compilations that can be obtained from the Database. In other words, an operator can anticipate bandwidth needs for users in a given location not only by looking at video versus other usage patterns, but also by assessing what the impact on bandwidth consumption will be based on device profiles associated with those usage patterns. Such data not only assists with projected usage calculations in the initial planning process; it serves to alert operators to how ongoing shifts in device profiles will impact bandwidth requirements over time.
Many other nuances come into play, including a full assessment of all the connectivity options that may be readily available to facilitate high levels of QoE without the presence of an operator hotspot. This 360 degree view of everything going on in a given location allows the analysis to be based on the actual user experience rather than on network infrastructure parameters alone.
By looking at the complete “long-tail” of access options in each location, economically minded operators can determine how best to use the client-management capabilities of WeANDSF to achieve required levels of QoE, whether through directing connectivity to already deployed access points or to a new operator-installed hotspot. Critically, the operator can use this information to maximum advantage knowing that, with WeANDSF in place, the operator will be able to ensure high QoE connectivity in locations where such possibilities are available as alternatives to the placement of a new hotspot in that location.
Of course, the location decisions can be based on other considerations as well. For example, 360 degree visibility and comprehensive analysis will allow operators who are just implementing WeANDSF to reassess their current hotspot locations to ensure that all are meeting subscriber needs to maximum advantage or whether some should be repositioned. They can also determine whether their customers are connecting to the operator’s router or to another provider’s router and what the bandwidth rate is on that connection, thereby gaining insight into how routers can be used most effectively.
Opportunistic hotspot planning may also consider placements based on where the potential to alleviate cellular congestion by offering offload support to carriers is greatest. The same applies to positioning hotspots for optimal use in MVNO and roaming relationships. In all cases the comprehensive WeANDSF analysis of connectivity options of all types, usages patterns across all classes of devices and bandwidth availability as determined by the ebb and flow of traffic through different day parts at each location of interest provides operators what they need to know in order to develop optimal deployment strategies.
Support for Monetization and Evolving MSO Wi-Fi Strategies
Beyond the immediate focus on maximizing the reach and benefits of multiscreen services through subscriber access to operator hotspots MSOs have opportunities to leverage Wi-Fi technology in ways that could greatly strengthen their positions as wireless broadband becomes an ever greater force in consumer entertainment. In all cases, the WeANDSF database and functionalities that operators put in place to facilitate TV Everywhere service and Wi-Fi deployments can be applied to enable maximum returns on new monetization strategies.
As shown in Figure 2 above and Figure 6 here, current trend lines point to rapidly escalating use of mobile for real-time entertainment. Not only will cable operators be able to generate new revenue as the expansion of 4G mobile networks increases mobile carriers’ need for offload and backhaul support; Wi-Fi also provides operators a practical, low-cost path into mobile broadband services as MVNOs.
Sandvine, which tracks Internet traffic worldwide through deep packet inspection deployments on service provider networks, provided this perspective on the impact real time entertainment consumption is likely to have on mobile access traffic in the years ahead.
There are other revenue opportunities as well. For example, some MSOs have begun to offer non-subscribers access to their hotspots at a fee, allowing them to expose service options to potential customers as well as to derive new income from their hotspots. Others are giving thought to a value-add charge to subscribers for an “express lane pass” that might be imposed once an operator has built out Wi-Fi to the point of ubiquitous or nearly ubiquitous coverage.
Through implementation of WeANDSF operators will be able to execute on automatic connection of these paying users to operators’ in-territory hotspots and to the hotspots of roaming partners outside their service areas. Moreover, by virtue of the 360-degree vision into all connectivity options as described earlier, the WeFi solutions allows operators to ensure that these paying customers enjoy the best QoE available whether or not they’re in range of an operator-owned hotspot.
There also are revenue opportunities tied to operators’ expanding roles as providers of business class services. As noted in a recent enterprise survey conducted by research firm Infonetics, employees are offloading routine tasks from desktops and laptops to smartphones and tablets, prompting IT departments to explore ways to connect those devices to their networks. As these changes occur, operators’ Wi-Fi resources in combination with WeANSDF offer a way to extend employee access to protected operator-delivered enterprise services outside the office.
Offload and Backhaul Support
Perhaps the lowest hanging fruit with major revenue upside is the opportunity to leverage Wi-Fi technology in conjunction with HFC network capacity to serve the offload and backhaul needs of mobile carriers. By many accounts, enabling seamless, unobtrusive handoffs between cellular and Wi-Fi networks has become a priority for cellular carriers seeking to conserve bandwidth.
In a recent survey of cellular operators’ need for Wi-Fi offloading capabilities, U.K. researcher Ovum reports strong demand for advanced technology which even carrier hotspots typically don’t provide. Over half of surveyed cellular operators expect session continuity when moving between Wi-Fi and cellular networks, while over 90 percent are also looking for a device-based policy solution that would select the best network (3G/4G/Wi-Fi) based on cost, performance and other policy-driven features.
Moreover, the offload scenario intrinsic to cable’s Wi-Fi agenda brings with it the opportunity to engage in backhaul transport for mobile carriers’ small cells by leveraging the connections between Wi-Fi hotspots and the HFC infrastructure. Carrier demand for small cell capacity to supplement macrocell coverage in high-traffic areas is rising rapidly. These access points combine low-powered indoor/outdoor base stations with limited range and carrier-grade Wi-Fi technologies that act as part of an integrated network offering.
In response to these needs, vendors are supplying MSOs new multi-platform radio modules designed not only to support Wi-Fi hotspots but also to provide small cell offload for multiple types of licensed cellular networks. These strand- or pedestal-mounted small cells, or “picocells” in cable parlance, directly interconnect with bonded DOCSIS 3.0 channels on the HFC network, allowing operators to provide backhaul support for their own Wi-Fi traffic and for cellular partners as well.
Meeting such needs becomes a natural extension of the growing role many MSOs are already playing as suppliers of cellular backhaul transport over dedicated fiber links from base stations to mobile controllers at the macrocell level. The key to executing on these opportunities is to enable client-based connectivity decisions through policies that leverage the information, analytics and intelligent processing resources of the WeANDSF platform.
Maximizing the MVNO Opportunity
There are many options open to MSOs who want to offer their own branded mobile services, all of which revolve around leveraging Wi-Fi to support MVNO relationships with mobile carriers. No matter which path is taken, it’s clear from the points made earlier that the tools available through WeANDSF can be used to great advantage.
Indeed, the opportunity to put those tools to use can have a profound influence on the calculations that go into shaping an MVNO strategy. This starts with the fact that the WeFi database provides the operator a comprehensive view of the connectivity scenarios across the metro service area, allowing operators to optimize hotspot placements in ways that are best suited to any given MVNO strategy.
Many MSOs have made clear their intentions to offer a branded mobile service through interconnection of their Wi-Fi networks with MNOs. In the case of the four MSOs, including Comcast, TWC, Cox and Bright House Networks, who sold their AWS (Advanced Wireless Service) spectrum to Verizon in 2012, the Justice Department and FCC ruled the cablecos should have the option to enter into MVNO agreements with Verizon right away rather than waiting four years as originally envisioned in their agreement with the carrier. Some in the group have said publicly that they are now moving in this direction.
A key fact to be considered in any such discussion is that mobility is now an option with carrier grade Wi-Fi. This doesn’t mean cable Wi-Fi is likely to become an alternative to mobile as a heterogeneous network with a multi-regional or national footprint, but, in the eyes of many strategists, utilizing mobility on Wi-Fi in conjunction with an MVNO deal makes a lot of sense.
For example, Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. analyst Craig Moffett recently lent his support to this notion, calling it “potentially a highly disruptive wireless offering.” As quoted in Light Reading, Moffett said, “Paired with an MVNO agreement…a Wi-Fi-first network could be a game changer…but only if the cable operators had sufficiently dense Wi-Fi networks … and a willing MVNO partner.”
In other words, to the extent their customers can stay on the cable network while traveling around locally, there’s no need to use the wholesale carrier’s cellular network and, therefore, less cost involved to support the mobile side of the operator’s service. A few MSOs have signaled they’re moving in this direction, including Canada’s Shaw Communications, which has abandoned a planned cellular infrastructure deployment in favor of an advanced Wi-Fi infrastructure, and Cablevision Systems, whose executives have long alluded to mobility as the end game in their aggressive Wi-Fi deployments.
Whether or not an operator chooses to implement mobile functionalities on the Wi-Fi network, WeANDSF can be employed not only to facilitate planning of Wi-Fi infrastructure in conjunction with the MVNO strategy but also to orchestrate subscribers’ engagement with the Wi-Fi and MNO infrastructures to maximum advantage once the MVNO agreement is activated.
For example, in cases where the operator relies entirely on the MNO for mobile support, the operator can set policies with WeANDSF to ensure that subscribers are linked to the best fixed wireless access options, including the operator’s hotspots, whenever they are not in their vehicles, except in instances where the MNO’s network offers the best connectivity option in fixed access situations. In cases where the operator has implemented mobility on the Wi-Fi infrastructure, policies can be set to ensure that subscribers remain on the operator’s Wi-Fi network wherever it’s available, only switching to the MNO network when they’re out of range or when local traffic conditions are such that the MNO network offers a superior connection.
As described in the foregoing discussion, WeANDSF affords cable operators a virtually unlimited range of options for maximizing effective use of their Wi-Fi infrastructures to deliver superior TV Everywhere services and to exploit monetization opportunities through relationships with other providers. The great advantage that comes with utilizing WeANDSF is that the platform addresses the most pressing current needs respecting QoE requirements of multiscreen services while, at the same time, establishing a foundation for operators to exploit in whatever ways are conducive to realizing other goals as new opportunities arise.
By virtue of leveraging the ANDSF standard, WeFi has developed a solution that provides operators ongoing assurance they will be able to interface with device and network components in the mobile service domain as technology continues to evolve. Consequently, MSOs’ opportunities to build on Wi-Fi as leading players in wireless broadband will be open ended for years to come.