How did WiFi face up against 5G at MWC?

The WiFi Alliance had a lot to prove at MWC, in danger of being overshadowed by the abundance of 5G and IoT technologies spanning broad industry applications being showcased in Barcelona this week. The non-profit organization was reminding the mobile industry that everyone’s preferred network technology has been handling the seemingly futuristic use cases on show, in some way or another, for years – and it is not about to lie down and die.

The WiFi Alliance is partly responsible for forging a future in which WiFi vendors can thrive and President and CEO Edgar Figueroa pleaded that the development of high level standards should not halt innovation within the vendor community. “We can standardize as far as we can, but there is no reason the vendors can’t innovate with things like new apps,” said Figueroa, speaking to Faultline Online Reporter at MWC.

Standards development is naturally a long-winded process, with Figueroa giving us the latest updates on the WiFi Alliance’s Vantage program – aiming to provide everything an operator needs, such as seamless onboarding and roaming set up. Vantage has recently been updated with optimized multi-band capabilities, including band steering elements for connecting devices to different APs, bands or channels, to combat the sticky client problem. Connectivity has also been optimized for high density to streamline the number of steps required to connect to a network, based on 802.11ai and 802.11k technologies.

WiFi carries more than half the world’s internet traffic, while for operators with both fixed and mobile network infrastructure, 80% of their traffic travels over WiFi, according to Figueroa. The share of traffic traveling over WiFi has likely shifted as 3G and 4G network roll outs have spread rapidly, but MNOs are approaching breaking point and seeking ways to ensure this balance doesn’t shift any further. The point is WiFi will always have a place in a mobile-first video and unlimited data package world.

This demand is driving an increase in hotspot deployments around the world and also the emergence of multi-AP homes, with the Vantage project improving experiences both in the home and in public areas such as stadiums, airports and train stations – although the focus of Vantage seems to lean towards operator-owned public WiFi hotspots using Hotspot 2.0 Passpoint and this new optimized connectivity. A recent example was demonstrated by Qualcomm and Ruckus Wireless last week, completing a Vantage-based trial on KDDI’s public WiFi network at the Shibuya train station in Tokyo, reporting 10x faster connection speeds and a 30% increase in efficiency.

Multi-AP demand in turn is bringing mesh software into the mainstream. Mesh was certainly a buzzword among the WiFi players in Barcelona, but Figueroa was keen to point out that from a technical standards viewpoint mesh and multi-AP are very different beasts, with multi-AP architectures in his view providing a much richer feature set. To meet higher demand, the WiFi Alliance has been working on its new multi-AP protocol, which Figueroa expects to be released around mid-2018. The aim is to allow multiple APs to act as one, by optimizing spectrum and introducing capabilities such as load balancing.

What began as a purely vendor-driven initiative for multi-AP architectures, is now attracting some major interest from operators, pointed out Figueroa, which is perhaps telling for how much WiFi has left to give.

There is a divided camp among WiFi aficionados regarding the emergence of 5G, over whether WiFi will play a critical role in the development of 5G technology or not. Figueroa is firmly on the side that WiFi will play such a role, on the precedent that WiFi is over qualified in addressing 5G use cases, such as Gigabit speeds, and WiFi is only getting better and better. However, Figueroa highlighted that the industry is a long way from end users being connected to WiFi and unlicensed spectrum networks, yet the WiFi Alliance is preparing for the evolution.

We also spoke to Ruckus at MWC, on the back of launching a new CBRS gateway last week. Bringing its expertise in enterprise WiFi and LAN switching to Arris following the recent acquisition, the discussion centered around Ruckus transferring these technologies over to the consumer home market. Ruckus representatives were neither acceptant nor dismissive of this potential future direction driven by its new parent company but admitted there have been discussions with Arris and operators about how embedding Ruckus technology into the Arris product line could be beneficial.

Although specifics were sparse, we get the impression Ruckus technologies will eventually be dragged in to bolster the core Arris business, but we questioned if the company’s migration to in-home WiFi use cases would be a natural transition or a very late party entrance. “There is missing capacity at the edge of the network, so we are bringing expertise in certain products,” was the answer given.

Nokia is one of many major vendors making noises in 5G, but the company made an interesting move this week, bolstering its networks business through the acquisition of mesh WiFi software provider Unium. Nokia claims its technologies are already in 47 million home gateways today, while Unium has Google Fiber on its customer list.

“The home networking market is booming and whole-home WiFi is a key enabler for this. Today’s WiFi solutions still have serious issues with sticky clients, interference, coverage gaps and capacity issues. With Unium inside, our Nokia WiFi solution will deliver an unmatched user experience, going beyond what standard mesh WiFi solutions deliver today,” said Federico Guillen, President of Nokia Fixed Networks.