For them, it’s a lifeline to future growth. As data traffic grows at a dizzying pace across Africa – Vodacom announced last week their data revenue outside South Africa grew by 100% in the past year – it’s becoming increasingly difficult for networks to cope with the traffic. The result is deteriorating voice quality – hello, hello, can you hear me now? – and frustratingly slow data speeds.
But Wi-Fi offers a solution. As Wi-Fi networks expand throughout Africa’s cities, they represent an opportunity to relieve the strain from the traditional 2G and 3G networks, and certainly from the 4G networks of the future.
The answer is Wi-Fi offload, which involves operators moving mobile traffic from their traditional networks onto Wi-Fi networks.
“The key challenges for mobile networks are capacity and coverage, says Kian Ellens, Cisco Systems’ business development manager for mobility solutions across the Middle East and Africa.
“The difficulty is that, whereas most coverage is outdoors, most consumption is indoors, hence the focus on small cells and now on Wi-Fi offload. The underlying challenge is that it must be carrier class Wi-Fi – good enough for a mobile network to provide quality voice. A lot of work is happening around how do we deliver carrier class experience, as well as on authentication mechanisms to make the hand-over seamless. Already, in some markets we are seeing reduction in churn because subscribers can switch to their home Wi-Fi connection.”
Ellens believes a land-grab is under way in South Africa to provide carrier class Wi-Fi. Evidence is provided by the massive roll-out of hotspots under way by Telkom Mobile and a partnership revealed this week between WirelessG and Vodacom to grow the Always On network to more than 6 000 hotspots in the next five years. Telkom Mobile intends to match this number, while the Western Cape government has announced an initiative to bring free Wi-Fi access to low-income areas.
The result of all these projects is that, by 2019, Wi-Fi will be pervasive in public areas across South Africa. Thanks to newly standardised technologies, it will then be possible to switch signals between mobile networks and Wi-Fi networks.
A new Wi-Fi standard developed by the global Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA), called Passpoint, also known as Hotspot 2.0, is designed for both signal switching and more flexible content delivery and authentication procedures.
“This will bring mobile-style roaming to Wi-Fi,” says Ellen. “The network will know who your preferred provider is, and it has the ability to advertise services to you. We’ve got the ability to do this today.”
An enthusiastic backer of Hotspot 2.0, Ruckus Wireless, sees it as an opportunity for hotspot owners to monetise their public access Wi-Fi networks by entering into roaming arrangements with mobile operators – providing even further incentives across industries.
“In time, the consumer won’t know or care what access they’re using, cellular or Wi-Fi, because it will all be automatic,” says Michael Fletcher, sales director for Ruckus Wireless sub-Saharan Africa. “They will get a bill at the end of every month that covers all access.”
The flexibility and overall cost-effectiveness of Wi-Fi, he says, underline its potential to meet the demand for broadband access in Africa.