in 5G Era, Will Wi-Fi Offload Still be So Important? Probably Not

Offload of mobile device connections from the mobile network to Wi-Fi has been a generally-growing trend for some time, steadily increasing from 2G to 3G to 4G. But that might well change with 5G, where so much capacity, and lower costs, might provide clear incentives to remain connected on the mobile network, most of the time.

Some 31 percent of mobile device traffic was offloaded on 2G networks, 45 percent on 3G networks and 66 percent on 4G. That might well reverse in the 5G era, where Cisco suggests 48 percent of mobile device traffic will be offloaded. In some markets, where tariffs are encouraging, and capacity is not an issue, the offload percentage might be far lower than that.

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In 2016, 63 percent of all traffic from mobile-connected devices was offloaded to the fixed network by means of Wi-Fi devices and femtocells each month, Cisco says.

Of all IP traffic (fixed and mobile) in 2021, 50 percent will be Wi-Fi, 30 percent will be wired and 20 percent  will be mobile.

Cisco argues that offload volume is determined by smartphone penetration, dual-mode share of handsets, percentage of home-based mobile Internet use, and percentage of dual-mode smartphone owners with Wi-Fi fixed Internet access at home.

Some of us might argue that, in addition to those issues, retail tariffs and network capacity will play a key role, perhaps even a decisive role. The reason is that consumers are rational where it comes to paying for access. If remaining on the mobile network provides reasonable user experience at reasonable cost, the incentive to offload is reduced (even if it is very easy, and seamless, for devices to switch.

That noted, not all consumers will be on 5G connections in 2021, so incentives to offload will still exist.
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For that reason, the amount of traffic offloaded from smartphones will be 64 percent by 2021, and the amount of traffic offloaded from tablets will be 72 percent.

Cisco notes that data caps and costs are issues. “Some have speculated that Wi-Fi offload will be less relevant after 4G networks are in place because of the faster speeds and more abundant bandwidth,” Cisco’s Visual Networking Index staff notes. “However, 4G networks have attracted high-usage devices such as advanced smartphones and tablets, and now 4G plans are subject to data caps similar to 3G plans.”

“For these reasons, Wi-Fi offload is higher on 4G networks than on lower-speed networks, now and in the future according to our projections,” Cisco staff say.

But the same report also suggests that, on 5G networks, Wi-Fi offloading will decrease. “As 5G is being introduced, plans will be generous with data caps and speeds will be high enough to encourage traffic to stay on the mobile network instead of being offloaded, so the offload percentage will be less than 50 percent,” they say.

Wi-Fi and mobile traffic both are growing faster than fixed traffic (traffic from devices connected to the network through Ethernet).

Fixed traffic will fall from 52 percent of total IP traffic in 2015 to 33 percent by 2020, as a result.

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