Investigating developments, challenges for converged WiFi-5G

An influx of reports and statistics have half-filled the post-CES void this week, selling visions of splendor for 2019 by breaking down the various milestones achieved in video and network technologies last year. A couple of reports covering broadband connectivity piqued our interest, most notably one investigating the convergence of WiFi and 5G – tipped to be one of THE defining trends to come this year.

Wireless industry bodies the NGMN (Next Generation Mobile Networks) and Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) have published a joint report identifying a number of potential use cases for a converged connected world. Their big claim is that convergence at the network level between 5G and WiFi, with each radio access network (RAN) bringing unique and complementary capabilities, can be harnessed to provide seamless network services.

“Bearing in mind that a significant amount of data traffic from smartphones use a WiFi access, this will lead to a better user experience and create new business opportunities for both WiFi and cellular providers,” states the report.

A significant requirement for overcoming challenges in convergence is the enablement of WiFi-only devices to connect to the 5G core, according to the report, highlighting how further research is required to ensure tight integration between WiFi and 5G networks. The NGMN and WBA state this needs “an interface to enable certain level of network manageability and policy control between 5G core and WiFi networks, and the ability of a client to route traffic over one or more accesses, making optimal use of the available connectivity.” The aim is to soon roll out a strategy recommendation to ensure the best user experience when using both WiFi and cellular services, although a time frame hasn’t yet been etched out.

Specific industry developments from a technical standpoint include existing 3GPP specifications for tightly integrating 3GPP and non-3GPP radio technologies (WiFi of course is non-3GPP), and crucially this must be ensured within the 5G Core Network. The EAP (Extensible Authentication Protocol) framework (similar to WiFi) is one enabler of this and has already been adopted by WiFi 6 (802.11ax) and 3GPP, and this can accommodate different wireless subscription types, whether it be mobile or fixed, along with their native authentication methods.

3GPP Release 15, which saw the delivery of the first 5G specs, accommodates interworking between WiFi and 5G via the Non-3GPP Interworking Function, with secure transport of Control-Plane/User Plane (CP/UP) messages between devices. Moving on to Release 16, convergence capabilities for WiFi integration are currently being enhanced, including trusted WiFi support and access traffic steering, switching and splitting.

Tiago Rodrigues, General Manager of WBA said, “WiFi 6 introduces new capabilities for carriers, cities and enterprises to cost effectively provide additional coverage and capacity, mainly indoor, to address the 5G use case requirements. Now it’s time to fully capitalize on these capabilities by delivering a clear strategic path for converged RAN deployments. This is a priority.”

NGMN Alliance CEO Dr. Peter Meissner added, “Convergence of 5G and WiFi can potentially bring major benefits to cellular operators, enterprise WiFi and public WiFi solution providers, giving access to 5G and enterprise services from both WiFi and 5G access networks.”

Moving onto the fixed broadband market now, a report from analytics vendor OpenVault arrived this week, outlining some of the trends observed last year during the acceleration of broadband markets in the US and Europe. A key finding was that average usage soared a surprising 33.3%, with an average of 268.7 GB per household in the US last year, rising from 201.6 GB the previous year, while Europe grew to 168.2 GB per household from 126.2 GB a year earlier.

Interestingly, the percentage of households using 1 TB or more (dubbed “power users”) in the US almost doubled from 2.1% in 2017 to 4.1% in 2018, while Europe saw an increase of more than double, rising from 0.3% of all subscribers using 1 TB or more, to 0.7%.

Given this healthy growth, OpenVault also analyzed out pricing structures, comparing usage-based pricing and flat-rate pricing for broadband services. OpenVault data shows that average usage for households with flat-rate pricing was 282.1 GB per household, more than 9% higher than the 258.2 GB per household average on usage-based billing plans. The percentage of flat-rate households exceeding 1 TB of usage was 4.8%, a full percentage point higher than the 3.8% of usage-based households who exceeded the 1 TB threshold.

Its conclusive advice for operators is that usage-based billing is among the most effective tools the industry has in managing consumption and reducing the need for massive capex expenditures.