Fright Night 2014: Misunderstood Service Provider Opportunities – Part Two (WiFi)

Peter Jarich
Peter Jarich

Summary Bullets:

  • The Wireless Broadband Alliance’s Wi-Fi Global Congress, earlier this month, provided a view into new carrier WiFi business models and opportunities.
  • Too much of the focus, however, remains on WiFi as little more than an access technology.

Take a moment to think about horror movie sequels. Their charm (for those who find them charming) generally lies in the fact that they’re new movies, but at the same time very familiar. You knew Jason Vorhees would return for Friday the 13th Part 2. You knew he’d still be wearing his hockey mask. You knew the kids he was tormenting would continue to do stupid things that ultimately got many of them killed. And yet, you also knew that the plot would be new in some (however minor) way.

The same holds true for my thinking about the business opportunities that seem to be getting ignored. In a previous post, I kicked off this discussion by talking about misperceptions and missed opportunities in the Internet of Things (IoT) space. The discussion of missed opportunities around WiFi is fundamentally different from the IoT discussion… yet the basic storyline is fundamentally the same.

While I was largely an observer at the IoT World Forum (IoTWF), I was an active participant in the Wireless Broadband Alliance’s Wi-Fi Global Congress: I chaired sessions on day one, moderated a panel that same day, and was the lead judge of the event’s Wi-Fi Industry Awards. You’ll forgive me, then, for thinking it was a pretty good event. If nothing else, it captured the pulse of what’s going on in carrier WiFi better than almost any other focused event. Heck, if you couldn’t make it to San Francisco, the short-listed awards entries give you a great feel for “what’s hot” in the space. Passpoint (aka, Hotspot 2.0) was well-represented. Massive WiFi deployments in public venues were well-represented. WiFi-centric service providers (MVNO or otherwise) were well-represented.

In other words, WiFi as a data access or communications access technology – a complement or substitute for cellular – was well-represented. WiFi as a tool for driving value beyond access was much less present.

And this is where the Wi-Fi Global Congress felt much like the IoT World Forum. In both cases, it was downright scary to see how the potential role of the carrier as a part of the ecosystem was being ignored. In the case of the IoTWF, the assets carriers had built were being ignored. In the case of the Wi-Fi Global Congress, it was the new opportunities for carriers to leverage WiFi.

– Passpoint and authentication tools? Yes, they’re important for establishing access to WiFi networks, but then what? How will you better monetize that access?

– WiFi at public venues? Yes, a solid access experience is important to the connected event-goers. But, again, what about monetizing that access?

– WiFi as a foundation for communications services? Old news. Operators have been rolling out voice over WiFi in some form long before the latest barrage of news. Our Consumer Services team has been all over this for years: EE Flags Innovative Integrated WiFi Calling and Start of VoLTE Trials, Zeitgeist: Communications Telcos Ready Themselves for Wi-Fi Calling Cascade, Smart Innovations Watch: Communications (Europe).

This doesn’t mean that there has been a lack of innovative thinking around carrier use of WiFi. Along with WiFi calling, we’ve been talking up WiFi-based location analytics as a proposed business model for years. Fon, in turn, made it onto the awards short-list with a social music sharing service; I’d like to think that uniqueness helped it to win its category. Yet, when you think of what’s “hot” in carrier WiFi, you’re most likely to hear about WiFi-based comms services or Passpoint. This is sad, but also scary for the opportunities to which this might leave carriers blind.

To be fair, operators haven’t been completely ignoring the uses of WiFi beyond access. Remember O2 WiFi’s focus on ads or AT&T’s work with Cisco on location-based WiFi services down in Atlanta? How about Amobee’s work on advertising and analytics with Telecom Indonesia or similar work by WIGO in Peruvian public venues? No? That’s understandable: most of these examples are somewhat old or niche. Vendors are doing their part to drive thinking beyond access and comms. Now, they need to give their would-be carrier customers good – well-monetized – case studies to help them move faster (ideally starting with cloud-based or hosted delivery to keep the risks low).

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