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What you need to know: This weblog captures key data points about the global telecoms industry. I use it as an electronic notebook to support my work for Pringle Media.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Can Crowdsourced Wi-Fi be Made to Work?

This post is sponsored by the Enterprise Mobile Hub and BlackBerry

In a perfect world, BT WiFi, a crowdsourced Wi-Fi service, would be a great. Developed by Madrid-based start-up Fon, the concept that underpins BT WiFi is both innovative and elegant. You subscribe to BT’s broadband service and you get to use the Wi-Fi connectivity of millions of other BT customers across the U.K. In return, you make a ring-fenced slice of your own hotspot available to other BT customers.

I have heard senior figures in the U.S. tech industry enthuse about this concept, arguing that crowdsourced Wi-Fi could be a serious competitor to the LTE networks provided by the major carriers.

Unfortunately, they are misguided: BT WiFi isn’t a great service. It is undermined by its reliance on unlicensed spectrum and a cumbersome authentication process. In the places where you really want to use it, such as a central London cafe or train station, BT WiFi can leave you frustrated.

Fighting for bandwidth in a London cafe
First of all, the branding is confusing – your computer might see networks named BT WiFi, BT Openzone and BT Fon. Which one to choose? Even when you have singled out the right network, the BT signal is often crowded out by another Wi-Fi network.  On a Mac, you get a message along the lines of: “The Wi-Fi network BTWiFi could not be joined. Try moving closer to your wireless router. Alternatively, run Wireless Diagnostics to troubleshoot. “

If you are sitting in your car outside a house in suburbia, it is probably a different story. But how often are you going to be doing that?

Automatic authentication required
On those occasions when your device does force its way on to a BT WiFi hotspot, you have to go through a log-in process that can be clunky on a smartphone.  A BT WiFi app can streamline this step, but then you need to remember to open the app to make the connection.  Clearly, the challenging economics of public Wi-Fi have made it difficult to build a business case for the automatic authentication delivered by the subscriber identity module (SIM) on mobile networks.

But that’s not the only issue. If you leave Wi-Fi on your smartphone switched on, your handset will try and connect to BT WiFi hotspots all over London, draining your battery life and over-riding your mobile data connection. The upshot is that emails don’t come in and apps don’t update – they are either waiting for the device to actually connect to the BT WiFi hotspot or they are waiting for you to manually log in. In essence, smartphones can be pretty dumb about when to use Wi-Fi and when to use 3G or 4G.

Once you actually connect to a BT WiFi hotspot, the throughout can be sluggish – most of the capacity is understandably reserved for the hotspot owner, so you may be sharing the left-overs with other nomadic BT customers in the vicinity. It is usually fine for chat, email, calendar synchronisation and other un-demanding apps, but it may not be reliable enough to sustain voice over Wi-Fi calls or other real-time services.

Fixed mobile convergence
BT WiFi’s failings are not just an issue for BT. Many other telcos have been seduced by the concept of crowdsourced Wi-Fi. Fon lists its partners as Belgacom, Deutsche Telekom, Hrvatski Telekom, KPN, MTC, Netia, Oi, SFR, Softbank and ZON, as well as BT.

This illustrious list reflects the fact that telecoms operators around the world are trying to combine mobile and Wi-Fi networks into a coherent, converged offering.  As data traffic soars, mobile operators, such as Vodafone, are buying up fixed assets to shore up their network capacity and ease the pressure on their precious wireless spectrum. I really hope they manage to meld mobile and Wi-Fi into a seamless offering, but it is going to take some pretty good algorithms.

Although the advent of Wi-Fi in the 5GHz spectrum band should, at least, temporarily, help services like BT WiFi, demand for connectivity is so high that these hotspots are also likely to become congested in busy urban areas.

The fundamental problem is that Wi-Fi services aren't generally underpinned by a robust business case. There is no way round the fact that wireless spectrum, like Mediterranean beaches or British road networks, is going be heavily congested unless people pay to use it. 

It ain’t a perfect world.

This post is sponsored by the Enterprise Mobile Hub and BlackBerry

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