Cellular phone usage has grown exponentially, and with the increased popularity of smartphones that can access the Internet and social media, which requires connectivity, mobile operators are finding themselves increasingly unable to cope with the sheer volumes of data traffic, says Mark van Vuuren, MD of Jasco ICT Solutions. 
Compounding this issue is the added burden of data from a variety of 3G modems, which also use up capacity. This not only affects the speed of data, but the quality of voice calls, since voice is also run on the 3G network. And this trend is not localised, but is something that is proving to be a challenge across the globe.
Long term evolution (LTE) has been seen as the solution to 3G data overload. However, red tape around LTE spectrum in South Africa has resulted in much of this spectrum remaining unallocated to telcos and thus unused, and the potential for this data medium is as yet untapped.
This means that telco operators need to look at alternative methods in the short- to medium-term to reduce data traffic on their networks, so that the integrity of voice calls can be preserved and customers retained.
3G offload onto WiFi offers a viable solution for telcos to deal with the data overload on mobile networks, particularly in high traffic volume areas. WiFi is an open spectrum technology which is designed specifically to handle data traffic, and the technology is available to offload data usage onto WiFi, freeing up 3G and 2G networks for voice traffic and improving customer service quality.
LTE is in the process of being deployed, and there are some trials being run in South Africa currently. However, this robust 4G technology can not yet fully be utilised until the regulatory debate surrounding spectrum allocation can be resolved.
In the interim, telcos need to look at alternatives to improving both data and voice quality on their networks, and one viable way of doing this is to offload a portion of data traffic onto an open spectrum technology such as WiFi.
One of the challenges around maintaining supply of data in line with ever-increasing demand is that market pressures around data costs are driving pricing down, which means that revenue streams are practically flat but that capacity needs to continually grow. Operators are therefore faced with the conundrum of keeping up with demand in a market that is not profitable given current models.
WiFi access points provide a solution to this challenge as well, as the cost of deployment is far lower than the cost of creating additional 3G capacity, with the added benefit that WiFi uses unlicensed bands so there is more spectrum available and operators can more easily acquire additional frequency.
Evolution in WiFi technology too has made it more applicable to large areas, and even for outdoor coverage, and the upcoming 802.11ac standard is set to increase the speed, range and coverage of WiFi enabled devices.
WiFi began with very small capacity of 50kB, and is now at 600Mb speeds. The new 802.11ac standard will increase this to 1,5Gbps, with devices already being tested and commercial roll-out of this standard set for 2013.
This makes WiFi even more applicable, taking it from a hotspot technology to a solution that can deliver full mesh networks to encompass wider indoor and outdoor areas. Layer three routing on the new standard improves networking capability and network protection. The upshot of this is an improved customer experience and the ability to deploy coverage over wider areas.
Cloud technology also adds to the viability of WiFi networks in a commercial sense, as a large proportion of the controlling and network management tools can now be delivered as a cloud services, meaning that multiple access points can be delivered using a centralised controller.
This means that a controller is not needed for every site, further driving down the cost of deployment. Controller-less technology also allows for instant access points to be created, reducing the cost of rollout. In terms of management solutions, this also means that a single management platform can be used for multiple access points.
This in turn enables remote management, further driving down costs. However, it is important to bear in mind that this requires an open standards management tool that provides cost effective access for multiple-vendor solutions with different WiFi protocols.
In this way, existing investment into WiFi technology is protected, and a migration to newer protocol devices can be conducted without the need for a rip and replace approach, which raises costs. New protocols and technology make WiFi an increasingly viable option for wide area data coverage.
WiFi data services also present an opportunity for fixed line operators to compete against mobile operators, by deploying WiFi hotspots to pull traffic onto their network. This technology is particularly effective in congregated areas such as shopping malls, business parks, central business districts and even sports stadiums.
Public access WiFi technology is gaining traction internationally, for example in Sweden where fixed line carrier TeliaSonera has more than 25 000 WiFi access points and up to 15% of data traffic is carried via WiFi. While this is not necessarily related to 3G offload, this example proves the viability of WiFi as an option for data access.
The exponential growth of data usage is something that is only set to continue, which means that there is no single medium that can handle the sheer volumes of traffic that will be required in years to come.
WiFi networks are just one way of offloading data from congested networks to ensure service can be delivered all around. There are opportunities aplenty for new players to get involved in providing data capacity for increasing demand, without taking away from the core business of existing operators.
3G offload onto WiFi is a technology that can viably be integrated as part of network rollouts to deal with rapacious demand for data. However, as with any new solution there are challenges involved in incorporating multiple technologies onto a single network.
The customer requires continuous quality of service, a seamless handover, and single billing for data no matter what technology is utilised. Carriers looking to implement 3G offload need to ensure that their solutions will seamlessly hand the user off between 3G and WiFi, and that operators can easily incorporate this into billing.
Integration and backend should be seamless, otherwise adoption rates will be low and investment will be wasted. A sound business model for charging of WiFi data roaming also needs to be built to ensure profitability for operators as well as high levels of customer services.
With intelligent hardware and software that provide open standards technology to integrate with existing servers and billing, and centralised cloud management that ensures a WiFi network becomes a part of the existing service, carriers and operators can easily leverage the potential of 3G offload.
Working with a partner that can deliver a fully integrated solution, from planning and installation to deployment, backend integration, support and maintenance, further simplifies this process. Using 3G offload onto WiFi to deliver a portion of data requirements can result in cost reductions of up to 60% on traditional 3G deployments, leaving room for profitability as well as improved customer service.