January 24, 2013

How Will Carriers Monetize Their Wi-Fi Offload Investment?


With wireless carriers gearing up to roll out a Wi-Fi offload infrastructure that interoperates with their mobile data services, it shouldn’t be a surprise to hear that the carriers are also looking to monetize this infrastructure. Carriers initially viewed Wi-Fi offload as a means of reducing congestion on their cellular data networks, but they need to cover those costs somehow. The carriers seem to realize, though, that it would be an unpopular move to simply start counting Wi-Fi minutes toward customers’ existing monthly data allotments.

Instead, they’re seeking ways to use Wi-Fi to create offerings that someone will pay for. They’re currently considering a range of initiatives under the catch-all term “service provider Wi-Fi” or “carrier WiFi.”

In the last week or so, I ran across a webinar from back office software provider Amdocs and a white paper from wireless operations software vendor Openet that offers  a flavor of the kinds of revenue opportunities carriers may be looking into as part of their carrier Wi-Fi initiatives.

Analysys Mason Sees Roaming, Marketing Opportunities

The Amdocs webinar included commentary from Chris Nicoll, chief analyst at Analysys Mason and Ann Hatchell, director of Marketing and Strategy for Amdocs’ Data Experience business unit.

Nicoll offered up his definition of what he called “service provider Wi-Fi,” which he said “provides management, security, control, quality of service and performance characteristics of cellular service but using Wi-Fi.” All of these capabilities represent substantial improvements over today’s best-effort Wi-Fi and for that reason Nicoll said service providers potentially could charge for some of these capabilities.

He also noted that there’s a land grab going on among carriers seeking to obtain access to prime hotspot locations such as shopping malls and high-density areas. The reason is not only that those tend to be the areas where carriers need extra capacity; it’s also viewed as an opportunity to sell marketing data or advertising opportunities to retailers.

By using analytics, carriers can better understand consumer behavior such as where they stop and for long and how much they spend. “That’s valuable information,” observed Nicoll.

Other revenue opportunities that Nicoll mentioned were international Wi-Fi roaming and second-party charging. The latter refers to situations in which venues in the vicinity of a hotspot would help cover Wi-Fi costs in exchange for attracting new customers. This apparently differs from Wi-Fi hotspots operated by coffee shops and the like in that the infrastructure would be carrier-operated and carrier-grade, with all of the QoS and control capabilities Nicoll highlighted previously.

Hatchell added a few other revenue opportunities to the list, including toll-free Wi-Fi and flexible charging. With toll-free Wi-Fi, a content provider would pay for the cost of using Wi-Fi to deliver content to cellular customers. With flexible charging, a customer’s carrier Wi-Fi usage would count toward the user’s data allotment but at a different rate than cellular data consumption – perhaps two gigabytes of Wi-Fi data would count as a single gigabyte of cellular data.

Senza Fili: Flexibility is Key

Openet also enlisted an independent analyst firm to assist in identifying Wi-Fi revenue opportunities – in this case it was Monica Paolini, president of Senza Fili Consulting, who penned a white paper for Openet titled, “Taking Wi-Fi Beyond Offload”.

Paolini cited some of the same options that Nicoll and Hatchell referenced, including security, international roaming and retail marketing opportunities, which Paolini referred to as “venue-based intelligence.”

She also offered a bit of a different take on the flexible charging opportunity. She encouraged carriers to use what she called a “nudge” approach toward subscriber Wi-Fi usage by creating incentives to use Wi-Fi where available. She offered three different examples of how carriers might achieve this.

One option would be to move the mobile device to the network that has the best performance and give the customer the ability to choose this option (which apparently would entail a higher cost than some others) only at certain times, such as during business hours. Another refinement to this service would limit the customer’s shift toward LTE if the customer is close to reaching or has reached his or her monthly cellular data allotment.

At the opposite end of the scale, a customer might save money by allowing the carrier to move traffic between cellular and Wi-Fi connections depending on which is more cost-effective for the carrier.

Lastly, the third option would enable subscribers to set their own parameters for Wi-Fi and cellular service depending on a variety of factors. For example, the subscriber might want video streaming only over Wi-Fi but be willing to use other apps over either network. Or the user might want to be asked for permission before allowing communications to shift to a higher-cost (presumably LTE) network.

Both Amdocs and Openet hope to gain business by providing carriers with the software they would need to implement options such as these. Hopefully in addition to exploring the technology requirements, carriers also are doing consumer research to determine what they think of the various options.






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