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5 June 2014

The future of wireless – BandwidthX gets close to CableLabs

The sheer power of WiFi as a weapon for the cablecos ‘ adding wireless to their triple plays while reducing their reliance on MVNO deals ‘ is clear from the major investments being made by US providers in the CableWiFi initiative. Carrier-class WiFi has evolved quickly, from a best effort option for low cost access, to a useful offload facility for cellcos, to a technology which can be fully integrated with mobile systems. In the future, new tools will enable licensed and unlicensed spectrum and capacity to be mixed and matched, dynamically and on-demand according to the needs of individual applications and users.

Who benefits from such capabilities will depend who is in control ‘ the mobile operators, which will always have the wide area coverage, full mobility and quality of their LTE networks to put on the table; or those which put WiFi at the center of the picture, squeezing the cellcos into a supporting role. WiFi-first MVNOs point the way to that and could reduce the need for 3G/4G when combined with the broad coverage of major cable hotspot/homespot build-outs. Unsurprising, then, that CableLabs, the R&D consortium for the US cable industry, is deeply interested in BandwidthX, which is pioneering the idea of a cloud-based marketplace for trading WiFi capacity.

BandwidthX has initially talked mainly about cellco offload, using its dynamic trading platform to match hotspot owners with mobile operators, automatically negotiating the price and the capacity required. Cablecos will have significant WiFi assets to offer in such a scheme, turning the tables on the traditional MVNO deal, in which they have to pay fees to access mobile networks.

Those MVNO agreements are long term and static, and cable operators claim they are far more favorable to the cellco than offload agreements are to hotspot owners. A coordinated approach by WiFi operators, and a market where WiFi is as valuable as LTE for many purposes, will start to redress that balance, and is also likely, over time, to change the traditional MVNO arrangement for something more flexible.

That, in turn, could favour smaller service providers, or those needing capacity only at certain times. Google has long talked about such an on-demand, marketplace approach, and urged regulators to consider it when allocating new spectrum, but only now are platforms emerging which could make it a reality.

The cable industry will certainly be keen to hold the position of power in such a scenario, as will Google of course. BandwidthX told FierceWireless that it visited CableLabs recently partly to make it aware of its platform, and to urge it to spread the word among its members ‘ though it is hardly likely that companies like Comcast will not already be following the start-up with interest.

Its CEO Pertti Visuri said in an interview: “The focus of our business is to create value for everybody in the industry by enabling use of that capacity and sharing the value that’s created in a fair way between the ones that have that capacity and the ones that put it to use’ ‘ harnessing what it calls ‘dark WiFi’ which, like dark fiber, refers to unused or underused hotspot and homespot capacity. “We have several commercial agreements that we’ve signed, and we have trials going on with companies representing tens of millions of customers on both sides of the marketplace,” he said.

Meanwhile, cablecos will also be monitoring the progress of the emerging LTE-U standard, which sees unlicensed spectrum commandeered to supplement a licensed-band LTE network. This has been championed by Qualcomm, which despite its Atheros WiFi acquisition remains wedded to extending the reach of its favored 3GPP technologies. As LTE-U, in its current guise, does not run standalone in unlicensed frequencies, but is always an add-on for a licensed operator, it would be of no use to non-cellcos, and would potentially steal capacity from WiFi. However, Ian MacMillan, a principal architect at CableLabs, believes ‘we have the opportunity to mold it into something that will help create better wireless access solutions for the future and play well with WiFi’.

In a blog post, he wrote that, while LTE as currently designed “won’t play fair with other users in the unlicensed bands’, that could change. “It’s unlikely that LTE-U would actually be deployed by a mobile network operator without some form of fairness mechanism, because the backlash from consumers and industries would be very undesirable,” he continued. By contrast, “Wi-Fi is designed to be a cooperative network” that works with multiple access points owned by different people or companies in the same spectrum.

“LTE-U Standalone would require enhancement of the LTE protocols to allow it to work well in unlicensed bands, both to share the spectrum and manage interference from other RF technologies using the unlicensed bands,” he added, effectively setting out the cablecos’ stall ‘ develop it to play nice with WiFi, preferably under direction from the cable sector, or incur such industry and consumer backlash that it would be a dead duck amidst the huge global backing for WiFi.