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Unused Wi-Fi spectrum may be costing mobile operators billions

A report from wireless quality of service experts XCellAir uncovers swathes of spectrum that operators are wasting

Mobile network operators (MNOs) stand to lose billions of dollars of revenue opportunities through mismanagement of unregulated wireless spectrum.

XCellAir, a specialist supplier of Wi-Fi quality of experience (QoE) systems teamed up with Real Wireless to produce an extensive report that highlighted the $18bn worth of money that operators were leaving on the table.

The study claimed poor management of Wi-Fi network assets severely limited their usefulness in dense urban environments with multiple access points (APs) serving large numbers of users. Interference between these APs and minimal spectrum management has resulted in a sub-par user experience in many urban areas.

XCellAir examined 250 live APs near its office in Montreal – although the results can be replicated with ease in any major city, said Todd Mersch, company founder and executive vice-president of sales and marketing – and discovered that 92% of APs never adjusted their operating frequency no matter how much interference was degrading their service.

“Off-the-shelf Wi-Fi products scan their environment, pick a bit of empty spectrum and then never change. As new APs enter the area it gets crowded,” explained Mersch.

The firm also found that despite the massive demands placed on urban Wi-Fi networks, two channels worth of bandwidth generally went unused at any one time, equating to around 100Mbps of unused capacity, 25 lost HD videos or 3,000 dropped HD voice calls.

Comparing two theoretical cost models – one for an operator that chose to ignore these problems and one that was managing interference and spectrum utilisation through scalable radio resource management and fault avoidance techniques – and applying them to New York City over a five-year period, XCellAir said that an operator with 25% market share could see a net present contribution of operational savings and new service revenues of $374m over the period.

These could be realised through cost savings resulting from the reduction in the total cost of core network transport, and new services as a result of using offload to mitigate capacity constraints, maintain QoE, and reduce the incremental cost of capacity.

“Additional services levering the Wi-Fi footprint capture more price sensitive customers and allow MNOs to compete with low-cost mobile virtual network operators and Wi-Fi-first providers,” said Mersch.

XCellAir arrived at the $18bn figure by scaling this model out over the top 10 worldwide financial centres, including to London, Frankfurt and Paris.

Commenting on the results, Real Wireless technology director Simon Saunders said: “Carrier Wi-Fi technology is central to supporting most global 4G, and ultimately 5G, network architectures to deliver the best possible user experience. This is especially important in dense urban areas. It is therefore critical that operators take action to ensure Wi-Fi does not become the weak link and prevent service differentiation.”

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