Wi-Fi: Will operators answer the call?


There is a great deal of momentum behind Wi-Fi calling right now, as mobile operators look to mitigate the threat posed by VoIP services from an array of internet application providers. A reliable voice service remains fundamental to the mobile experience — and therefore to the customer retention efforts of mobile operators — and a fully integrated, bearer-neutral voice service is a compelling proposition.

But there is a wider significance to this trend, which is mobile operators’ acknowledgement that cellular alone can provide neither the ubiquity nor the consistency today’s consumer requires of their wireless connectivity.

Each operator’s launch of Wi-Fi calling reflects two realities: First, that all smartphone users are at times unable to get a high quality indoor cellular connection and, second, that Wi-Fi connectivity is very often available when and where cellular is not. The conclusion mobile operators are clearly reaching is that truly comprehensive wireless connectivity requires both cellular and Wi-Fi. The demand for connectivity does not cease at the edge of any one network.

This is an important realisation for mobile operators to demonstrate. For obvious reasons they have traditionally sought to position cellular as all the consumer needs. As recently as August last year, for example, EE’s message was that customers with LTE subscriptions were dramatically cutting their use of public Wi-Fi and domestic broadband.

But in April this year, EE CEO Olaf Swantee spoke of the “major frustration” felt by numerous UK consumers unable to get a cellular voice connection in their homes. His response was the extension of EE’s voice service to include Wi-Fi calling, something he said would, “make a real difference to millions of customers across the UK.”

This is no doubt true but it raises more questions than it answers. While these voice services may be integrated at the application level, how are mobile operators going to address fragmentation of the experience in terms of the underlying data connectivity?

It’s true that many consumers already connect to Wi-Fi on their own, especially in the home. But cellular networks are challenged in all sorts of indoor locations — and many consumers struggle to manage Wi-Fi connectivity, especially in public. Devicescape’s own research has quantified this. In a study of smartphone users we found:

  • 29% never connect to their home Wi-Fi
  • 53% keep Wi-Fi switched off in public
  • 71% connect to Wi-Fi inconsistently

As long as consumers have to locate a Wi-Fi connection themselves, manually access that connection, then manage the variable quality and security unaided before they can use the Wi-Fi calling service, the experience is not integrated. You need only imagine the absurdity of having to follow those steps to access the cellular network to get a sense of the disconnect between the cellular and Wi-Fi elements of the smartphone experience.

Furthermore, voice represents a dwindling portion of overall smartphone usage. Research published by Analysys Mason and Nielsen in 2014 showed that ‘communication’ services accounted for just 25% of daily smartphone usage in 2013, down from 49% in 2011. As every consumer knows, when the cellular network is struggling, the data connection drops faster than the voice signal. So the need for a data connectivity supplement to the cellular network stretches far beyond the ability to make voice calls.

The answer seems clear: mobile operators need to deliver integrated cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity across the board. The introduction of LTE has created huge demand for data, thanks to the quality of the experience users have when they can connect. But cellular networks simply cannot deliver that quality of experience all the time, wherever the user goes. So, just as operators are augmenting the voice experience with Wi-Fi, they must augment the data experience too.

A service that manages each user’s total smartphone connectivity is the answer, whether to make the most of Wi-Fi calling, or any other service or application consumers need to access. Such a service requires that users are automatically connected to Wi-Fi whenever the cellular network cannot deliver an optimum experience, whether at home, in the office or in a public location where people convene in large numbers.

Operators themselves understand this. A 2014 survey by Informa Telecoms & Media, which polled over 800 mobile operator representatives, found more than 75% believe there is demand for an integrated cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity service.

Wi-Fi calling services from mobile operators prove their ongoing capacity to innovate for the benefit of their customers, but these services address only a small part of those customers’ demands. Operators must add breadth and depth to this innovation or risk losing customers to other players willing to move more quickly to meet the market need.

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