Are U.S. carriers throttling Wi-Fi offload until after next year’s spectrum auction?

Are U.S. carriers holding out on Wi-Fi offloading until after next year’s spectrum auction?

WiFi offloading is when carriers use WiFi hotspots as an accessory to support the demand placed on cellular networks.  Internationally, top-tier carriers are relying heavily on Wi-Fi hotspots to augment skyrocketing mobile device usage, especially in Asia, due to limited spectrum and infrastructure.  European carrier Orange has recently decided to automatically connect devices to WiFi hotspots, hoping to provide faster. reliable speeds to subscribers across the continent.   According to the Wi-Fi Alliance,  over 200 million households use Wi-Fi networks, and there are about 750,000 Wi-Fi hotspots worldwide.  Cisco reported that roughly 45 % of global wireless traffic was offloaded to Wi-Fi hotspots or small cells in 2013, and traffic will increase each year until offloaded data surpasses that which stays on the cellular network.  Cisco estimates that by 2017, Wi-Fi will account for 48% of the global IP traffic and cellular will account for only about 10%.  So, the question is, will U.S. carriers skew the percentage by continuing to build infrastructure (towers and rooftop antennas); in other words, to what extent will they mitigate demand by focusing on small cells and WiFi hotspots (which uses non-proprietary spectrum)?  According to Michael Thelander, founder and CEO of Signals Research, wireless carriers will need to use small cells more aggressively to assist with their macro sites and avoid demand chaos.   Wireless carriers in some U.S. markets will undoubtedly see network traffic exceed the capacity of LTE networks reliant on traditional base stations.  The report predicts that by 2020, 78% of all data traffic for the two largest operators – presumably Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility – will need to be carried by “some means other than large cells, even after taking into consideration the role of WiFi and the significant data traffic that it will support.”    (Note that the latter prediction is a bit more conservative than the former).   In any case, Steel in the Air believes that  anyone who is wondering whether small cells will overtake macro sites in the near future can breathe a sigh of relief because the base stations will still be necessary (and the carriers prefer them); however, its true that small cells will need to be deployed to help with the 3G, 4G and one day, 5G technologies.

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