New Approach to Scalability Bids To Transform Cable Wi-Fi Options

Aman Sehgal, regional head for sales & business development, UTStarcom

Aman Sehgal, regional head for sales & business development, UTStarcom

UTStarcom Enters U.S. Market with Platform Designed for Monetization

By Fred Dawson

December 5, 2014 – Judging from recent research surveying service providers’ Wi-Fi strategies it appears a stampede toward enabling carrier grade Wi-Fi is underway all over the world, creating revenue-generating opportunities for operators who can deliver scalable solutions with sufficient intelligence to support ambitious monetization goals.

Varying degrees of fulfillment on the intelligence requirements appear to be in abundant supply with the emergence of Wi-Fi management platforms that can deliver the quality of experience service providers are looking for to satisfy consumers’ hunger for long-form video, along with, in some cases, the controls and analytics essential to generating revenue from dynamic advertising and location-specific e-commerce. The need for scalable solutions, however, is another matter.

Cable operators, arguably the industry sector with the most at stake in Wi-Fi, have been able to mount a significant presence with best-effort public Wi-Fi, deploying growing numbers of access points (APs) at reasonable costs by leveraging their HFC networks as high-capacity backhaul conduits. But when it comes to going beyond best effort to ubiquitous coverage that can extend intelligent control to tens of thousands of APs supplied by multiple vendors, the cost efficiencies essential to the next leap forward have been lacking.

Hoping to remedy the situation, broadband technology supplier UTStarcom, a company with U.S. roots but which built its business in Asia, has entered the North American cable Wi-Fi market offering a massively scalable approach to intelligently operating APs from multiple vendors. As described by Aman Sehgal, regional head for sales and business development at UTStarcom, the firm’s Multi-Service Gateway (MSG) 10K Plus platform combines routing, switching, WLAN gateway and access controller (AC) functionalities in a unified multi-core system capable of supporting more than 120,000 APs and over 1.3 million subscribers within a single 13 RU chassis.

“We’re getting a great response from operators to our approach to supporting their Wi-Fi requirements,” Sehgal says. “They’re tired of dealing with multiple vendors to put together the hardware and intelligence they need to run metro-scale systems.”

Sehgal, whose 15-year background in broadband includes stints with Wi-Fi supplier BelAir Networks and its acquirer, Ericsson, was brought in this year to spearhead UTStarcom’s North American initiative from offices in San Jose. “Our plan is to expand our facilities and staff to pursue the long-term opportunity here,” he says. “The growth we’re seeing in Wi-Fi is astronomical.”

Indeed, according to a just-released survey of 40 MSOs and MNOs here and abroad conducted by researchers Real Wireless and Rethink Technology Research for Amdocs, 85 percent of the companies surveyed plan to invest in carrier-grade Wi-Fi by 2016, resulting in growth of carrier-

grade hotspots from about 14 percent of all hotspots today to 72 percent in 2018. This expansion comes against the backdrop of a predicted explosion in total public hotspots worldwide, which will go from 47.7 million today to 340 million by 2018, according to another recent report in which Rethink also took part through Maravedis Rethink, a joint venture with another Wi-Fi research and analytics specialist.

This equates to nearly one Wi-Fi hotspot for every 20 people on earth by 2018, compared to one hotspot for every 150 people today, notes Evan Kaplan, president and CEO of iPass, the global supplier of Wi-Fi networks that sponsored the Maravedis Rethink study. Service providers looking to provide saturation coverage will increasingly rely on third-party network suppliers like iPass, according to the Real Wireless-Rethink survey, which found that by the end of 2016 61 percent of MSOs’ Wi-Fi hotspots and 70 percent of MNOs’ will be sourced from third parties compared to 45 percent today.

Wi-Fi is now used by a “Wi-Fi first” generation of consumers, most of whom see it “as an essential utility, just like water or electricity,” Kaplan says. “Seventy-eight percent of data goes over Wi-Fi,” and soon consumers will “be able to roam this alternative network of millions of hotspots.”

Another trend to watch as MSOs push to carrier-grade operations across a fast-accelerating base of hotspots is the rate at which they are embracing the conversion of household Wi-Fi gateways to dual-use community hotspots. “The growth in community hotspots is taking public Wi-Fi from the cities to the suburbs,” says Peter White, co-founder of Maravedis Rethink, who says the research shows that “fixed-line operators with superfast broadband in the ground are converting residential customers to community hotspot providers at the rate of one per second.”

Astounding as that number sounds, it’s at least partially backed up by the Real Wireless-Rethink survey, which reports that by 2016 77 percent of service providers plan to use such “homespots” to expand public coverage, compared to 30 percent who are doing so today. To the extent MSOs want to impart carrier-grade capabilities to these hybrid hotspots the challenge to intelligent management becomes even greater.

“Service providers are starting to see Wi-Fi as a strategically important offering that can enhance or damage their reputations and which needs to support a user experience comparable to that of cellular networks,” says Oliver Bosshard, managing consultant at Real Wireless. “Best-effort Wi-Fi networks are not controlled from the operator’s core network or operational support systems tools, and the APs often do not support any form of traffic management or prioritization. As a result, operators are unable to monitor or address performance issues such as congestion, meaning they cannot guarantee QoE – properties such as connection speed, latency or prioritization that are all critical to enable the monetization options for Wi-Fi.”

The Amdocs-backed report finds that one of the three biggest risk factors for making carrier-grade Wi-Fi investments, cited by 65 percent of respondents, is their lack of strong network planning and management tools. A similar percentage of respondents say their existing tools will not extend well to Wi-Fi without additional investments, the researchers report.

As previously reported, Amdocs has taken an aggressive approach to addressing these concerns with the Wi-Fi solutions embodied in its CES 9 back-office portfolio. “Because quality of experience is essential to current and future network monetization strategies, operators need to have the right planning and management tools in place,” says Rebecca Prudhomme, vice president for product and solutions marketing at Amdocs. “These are areas that are critical to the business case – to ensure optimal and cost-efficient rollouts, and to provide detailed analysis of network behavior and customer usage, which can feed into improved quality of experience.”

Amdocs, of course, is not a supplier of Wi-Fi infrastructure, but many who are, such as Alcatel-Lucent, are putting a lot of muscle behind the OSS and analytics elements essential to achieving carrier-class QoE. Alcatel-Lucent has done this by extending the device and gateway control functions as well as the OSS capabilities of its Motive Customer Experience Management platform into the Wi-Fi domain.

UTStarcom, too, has made QoE and all the gateway management, monitoring and analytics requirements that go with it, a core part of its offering. Moreover, with provision for management of location services, merchant accounts, user apps and enterprise relationships, including everything from handling licensing, coupons and cards, pushing messages to users, tracking business data and much else, the supplier’s Intelligent Service & Management (ISM) platform provides the underpinnings to making the carrier-class Wi-Fi service a valuable revenue-generator for MSOs, Sehgal says.

“We’re not going after just the box deployment model,” Sehgal says of the ways in which UTStarcom uses its data gathering and analytics capabilities. “It doesn’t make sense to put in a Wi-Fi infrastructure that doesn’t make a business case.”

The supplier has gone to great lengths to support a level of QoE at the wireless interface that ensures the service provider will be able to deliver on those commercial expectations, he adds. For example, in managing handoffs between mobile and Wi-Fi the system can be set quality- of-reception parameters so that users are not switched to or kept on Wi-Fi unless the signal strength falls into the range where five 9s performance is assured, he notes. “The system lets you know when you need a new AP between existing APs if you want to keep the subscriber on your network in that location,” he adds.

The tracking detail and scope of analytics supported by the ISM platform opens a path to a new generation of intelligence-driven business arrangements, Sehgal says. For example, operators will be able to support commercial applications tied to identifying user location inside a store to an accuracy of 1.5 meters, he notes. “You can envision a smart app where the user is reminded to buy a specific item she’s passing in the grocery aisle when a smart refrigerator sensor at home notices the item needs to be replenished,” he says.

“We can dissect data to whatever parts the operator wants,” he continues. “We don’t dictate what the services or apps should be. We supply the intelligence and the functionalities that allow you to build, measure and scale whatever services you want at whatever level of granularity is appropriate from AP to AP.”

A lot of this is ahead of the market, he acknowledges. Consequently, while the capabilities are latent in the ISM platform, implementation of support for various types of services will be timed to market needs. “We see this is where the market is going,” he says. “But we don’t want to get too far out in front at this point.”

UTStarcom’s more immediate focus is on the need for reliable performance and scalability, Sehgal says. The ability to manage tens of thousands of APs and hundreds of thousands of customers from a single AC will be fundamental to achieving a uniformly managed footprint that’s large enough to justify pursuit of higher layer commercialization capabilities, he notes.

Indeed, this is what Japan’s Softbank, a UTStarcom customer and former investor in the company, learned as it expanded its Wi-Fi footprint to become the largest in that country with over 500,000 APs. “At first, Softbank didn’t understand how monetization could work for them,” Sehgal says. “It wasn’t until they got to 340,000 APs that the benefits became clear, and now they’re taking advantage of that scale.”

Each of the 12 line cards that make up the fully loaded UTStarcom MSG10K Plus chassis supports control over 20,000 APs, which allows operators to build toward the aforementioned level of unified control and service management across 120,000 APs per chassis. Critically, operators who choose to replace multiple ACs with the single UTStarcom platform do not have to replace existing APs, as long as they are compliant with the IETF secure tunneling standard known as CAPWAP (Control and Provisioning of Wireless Access Points), Sehgal says.

This is a departure from today’s norm where most of the leading vendors have implemented proprietary versions of CAPWAP in their ACs (the BelAir/Ericsson system is an exception), making it impossible for operators to replace an AC without replacing all the APs served by that AC. UTStarcom has addressed this issue by bringing to market the scaling capabilities of the MSG10K Plus with an open implementation of CAPWAP that allows them to bring any APs using that protocol into the AC’s domain, Sehgal says.

“Cross-AP manageability is key,” he says. “No one wants to rip out APs when putting in a new controller. They want a platform that’s more open, cloud based and scalable.”