Total smartphone service: put public Wi-Fi in the mix

The recent announcement that UK regulator Ofcom plans to make additional spectrum available for Wi-Fi is great news for consumers, writes DeviceScape’s Dave Fraser. Because Wi-Fi operates in unlicensed spectrum it is very much the people’s network; anyone with a broadband connection is able to get good quality wireless access to the content and services they love.

It’s the perfect complement to cellular services operating in licensed spectrum, not least because Wi-Fi has become established as the de facto access technology for indoor use. We spend most of our time and consume the vast majority of our smartphone data indoors, in spaces where it is often difficult to get a good quality cellular data signal.

Another uniquely populist characteristic of Wi-Fi is that it enables people and entities to share connectivity with one another. If you want a measure of the importance of Wi-Fi sharing, look no further than the fact that etiquette bible Debretts has expressed a position on it.

So, if you were to design a connectivity service from scratch in 2016, based on an understanding of how consumers use their smartphones, shared public Wi-Fi would be a necessary component of that service.

If you were to design a connectivity service from scratch in 2016, shared public Wi-Fi would be a necessary component of that service.

Shared Wi-Fi is most valuable to consumers in public indoor locations, because they visit many more of these than they do other people’s homes or offices. That it is generally available to all consumers, and not just those who subscribe to one particular operator, emphasises its egalitarian nature.

No surprise, then, that it has become a staple of the customer experience offered by numerous retail, service and hospitality businesses, from independent corner cafés right up to the UK’s largest retailers. These businesses understand their customers’ desire for unbroken connectivity and cater to it just as they cater to other basic needs.

So, if you were to design a connectivity service from scratch in 2016, based on an understanding of how consumers use their smartphones, shared public Wi-Fi would be a necessary component of that service.

The reality today, though, is that almost all smartphone connectivity services are legacies of a time before wireless and smartphones, when the primary functional requirement of a mobile phone was that it connected to the mobile network. Then, as now, a licence to operate a mobile network assured membership of a club whose exclusivity was guaranteed by the high costs of entry and operation, and crucial to the retrieval of those costs.

A companion legacy is the mobile sector’s inclination towards a divided, network-centric view of the world, in which carrier-grade cellular trumps the Wild West environment of Wi-Fi every time. It’s certainly well understood that there can be significant variations in QoS in the public Wi-Fi arena. And while it has phenomenal indoor coverage to its credit, the process of connecting to these Wi-Fi networks can be frustrating and off-putting for consumers.

But instead of viewing these issues as grounds to discriminate against public Wi-Fi, mobile operators should seize the opportunity to improve their customers’ experience of this hugely valuable, if sometimes variable, resource. The issues of quality and ease of access can be managed to ensure quality of experience across a service that combines Wi-Fi and cellular to play to both sets of strengths.
Meanwhile, you only have to look to the surge of enthusiasm among operators for Wi-Fi calling over the last two years for evidence (if your own experience is not enough) that cellular itself is often found wanting.

The truth is that consumers are reliant on both wireless and cellular, rendering the “competing networks” mentality outdated. In the smartphone era the ability to connect to the mobile network is simply one of a number of important underlying enablers required of the device and — judged in terms of time spent connected — it may not even be first among equals. What end users need is a service tailored to their movements and habits, and that has to be based upon a blend of cellular and Wi-Fi.

Caroline Gabriel, research director and co-founder at Rethink Technology Research, recently observed that: “The more ubiquitous and carrier-class public Wi-Fi becomes, the more the battle heats up between mobile operators and their non-cellular challengers, to see which can harness it more effectively.”

Gabriel was on the money. Recent moves by big cable players to integrate public Wi-Fi into their service offerings — as well as high profile forays into the space by Google — suggest that, openly at least, the battle is being brought by the non-cellular challengers. It is important to note that connectivity is not the product for these providers, it is simply the means by which they bring the product and the smartphone user together. They are free from any vested interest in one particular bearer.

What now remains to be seen is how mobile operators will respond. Will they embrace Wi-Fi — in particular public Wi-Fi — to enhance their customer experience, and increase the stickiness of their service? Or will they continue to abide by the tenets of network separation and cellular supremacy, managing the experience only where it relates to the mobile network?

Old habits are certainly hard to shake. But the greater portion of a customer’s connectivity experience any operator is able to manage, influence, and improve, the better chance they have of securing that customer’s loyalty. For this reason, as a more diverse field of competitors bid to own the customer, services based on a blend of cellular and Wi-Fi are taking root: If you want to serve the people, you need the people’s network.

Dave Fraser is CEO of DeviceScape