"Wi-Fi Only" Remains Only an Idea for Mobile Service Providers Out of Region

If a mobile service provider wants to expand out of region, it might try to acquire spectrum and build a network, when that is possible. In other cases, the preferred path is to acquire an in-country mobile operation.

When that is deemed unfeasible, sometimes a mobile virtual network operator strategy can work. If that is not possible, there are some incremental approaches a mobile service provider might still consider, though generally not in the "access" area.

As Wi-Fi coverage continues to improve, service providers and entrepreneurs will be looking for ways to use Wi-Fi only as the access scheme. So far, that seems a rather-distant possibility, though.

Perhaps it is not literally true that the distinction between licensed and unlicensed spectrum is now essentially irrelevant, a relic of the analog era of communications, as U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler says.

But many would agree there is much truth to Wheeler’s contention that “in 2014, licensed and unlicensed spectrum are more complementary than competitive.” But partial truth is not full truth. There is a difference between “Wi-Fi sometimes,” “Wi-Fi first” and “Wi-Fi exclusively.”

Mobile service providers now are quite comfortable with “Wi-Fi sometimes” as a basic part of their mobile data access strategy. A few challengers are trying the “Wi-Fi first” approach, defaulting back to mobile network access when Wi-Fi is not available.

“Wi-Fi exclusively” remains an option yet to become viable. That could well change, someday.

But much more effective access to spectrum, some improvements in access network platform cost, and a likely shift to devices and applications other than real-time voice, will likely be required to make the “Wi-Fi only” approach viable on a widespread and sustainable basis.

For the moment, Wi-Fi still is useful primarily to supplement and complement primary mobile access.

Though a few service providers rely on Wi-Fi as a major supplemental access method, and a few have tried to go “Wi-Fi first,” nobody really has tried to create a mobile service operation based exclusively on Wi-Fi access, which probably tells us it is not really feasible, at least not yet.

That will not stop entrepreneurs from revisiting the potential, especially as ISPs work to build ubiquitous consumer Wi-Fi networks that partition access on home networks, with a protected customer account and then a public shared portion of the access network.

Orange is testing whether its new Horizons business unit can create new out-of-market business ventures especially e-commerce and content businesses, and where feasible, possibly mobile virtual network operator operations.

Some think the biggest strategic move could eventually be an effort to try the “Wi-Fi only” approach, based on public Wi-Fi, in at least a test market. So far, Orange Horizons has not said anything in public about such a breakthrough approach to access.

Sooner or later, one might predict, a major mobile service provider, or a major application provider, will try to launch a “Wi-Fi only” service.
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