All indications point to full speed ahead for service provider WiFi deployments in 2013, says Steve Hratko, director of Carrier Marketing at Ruckus Wireless. 
While WiFi has been around for quite some time as a consumer and enterprise technology, it’s never garnered the kind of attention that it will this year. The reason? WiFi is seen as the most economical and capacity-rich technology to help carriers address the tremendous acceleration in mobile data traffic – particularly within high-density areas.
Most geographies are seeing traffic growth of 50% to 100% year-on-year with no end in sight. It is easy to do the math here and see that this will easily overwhelm the existing mobile infrastructure, even with LTE deployments.
Why WiFi? Why now?
WiFi is rapidly emerging as a credible RAN (radio access network) technology that can be deployed alongside of 3G and LTE in a mobile network. Initial WiFi deployments were all about offload and capacity injection.
Now the future is much more about integration into the core. This enables the user to have an “always-best-connected” experience, regardless of location or radio access technology. Users won’t need to know or care about WiFi authentication or roaming – it will all be as automatic and secure as in the 3G/LTE world.
Here are the pieces that are all coming together in 2013:
* Device support – in the fall of 2012, Apple joined the Android camp in moving to dual-mode smartphones. By adding 5GHz support, it opens these devices up to a huge pool of spectrum that can approach 500MHz in many geographies.
Even the largest mobile operators seldom have more than 100MHz of licensed spectrum in major cities. This will push more and more smartphones users to look to the WiFi bands to get connected.
* Transparent connectivity – after many years of work the industry is on track to begin commercialising Hotspot 2.0. This makes WiFi as easy to use and as secure as cellular. Hotspot 2.0 capable APs are already shipping from the major infrastructure vendors and smartphones should emerge early in the new year.
With the industry forecasting shipments of nearly a billion smartphones in 2013, and with operators and enterprises deploying Hotspot 2.0-ready infrastructure by the millions of units, this technology will rapidly sweep throughout the world.  Users will no longer have to think about SSIDs and authentication, instead WiFi will just weave itself into the fabric of the world’s mobile networks.
* Core integration – to truly become just another mobile RAN technology, it will be necessary to backhaul traffic into the mobile packet core. This allows subscribers to get the same set of services regardless of the radio access technology. These services include billing (pre-paid and post), policy, lawful intercept, roaming, authentication, addressing, mobility management and content filtering.
It even opens up the possibility of session persistence as a user moves between the 3G/LTE RANs and the WiFi RAN. The key ingredient here is Trusted WLAN Access per 3GPP standards. This approach requires a gateway that can bridge the world of the WiFi RAN to the mobile packet core.
* High density – build-outs in very high-density venues continue unabated. These are often the locations where WiFi offers the most compelling solution. These venues include stadiums, airports, arenas, convention centres, downtown city centres and college campuses.
Users have now come to expect WiFi when they walk into any of these locations and traditional neutral host DAS solutions just can’t scale as efficiently as WiFi.
* Making money – one of WiFi’s great strengths is that it is easily configured as a neutral host solution. This means the venue owner only needs to let one operator into their building, and that operator can wholesale to all other operators.
These wholesale arrangements will start to emerge in the first half of the year. The story gets even stronger as WiFi is integrated into the mobile packet core and into mobile billing systems. It will eventually become part of the service bundle that the subscriber pays for on a monthly basis.
* Management and service innovation – and no list would be complete without a discussion of management systems and new service enablement. This is another area where the mobile world excels, and users will start to see a host of platforms emerge here that can be used for analytics, reporting, location based services, personalisation, loyalty programmes and more.
Location is one of those very interesting options where a host of very targeted services can be directed at the user based on their location.
Make no mistake, WiFi is slated to become the third major standard RAN technology in the mobile operator portfolio. And it looks to be the technology that will do most of the heavy lifting in the very high-density venues from where most of the traffic load is coming.