Carrier Wi-Fi, Shared Spectrum Change Use Cases, Business Models

Carrier-grade Wi-Fi and spectrum sharing provide different value to actors within the ecosystem, changing the boundaries between private and public networks in new ways.

For mobile service providers, carrier-grade Wi-Fi mostly will be a way to incorporate unlicensed local networks as a core part of mobility infrastructure. Best-effort Wi-Fi mostly will remain a way to offload traffic from the mobile network.

For cable TV operators, carrier-grade Wi-Fi is a way to reduce the costs of entering the mobility business.

For business, government and other organizations, spectrum sharing will create new options for supporting private mobile networks that essentially compete with Wi-Fi as a local and private network platform.

Some entrepreneurs will see ways to create new wholesale venue communications businesses, offering indoor coverage to mobile service providers.

Fixed wireless internet service providers will see spectrum sharing as a way to remain relevant as bandwidth demands rise far above the traditional capabilities possible with legacy spectrum.

And a few large and well-heeled application and transaction providers might see new opportunities to build new access networks that better support their advertising, subscription or transaction business models.

Since the advent of the competitive era in telecom, and the rise of computing as a core use case, a distinction between “public” and “private” networks was created. In the consumer space, the “private” network is house wiring. In the business and enterprise space, private means the indoor or campus local area network.

In the 5G era, there will be additional changes. For the first time, enterprises and organizations will be able to create private mobile networks using 4G or other air interfaces. Such private networks might be used to support sensor networks or improve indoor coverage.

Speculation about the ultimate roles of private and public networks--especially the possibility that private networks might one day challenge public network roles--has bubbled up periodically over the past two decades.

Current practice suggests private networks increasingly act as extensions of the public network, though. That has been the case for mobile traffic offload (smartphones using Wi-Fi, as the best case).

With the rise of carrier-grade Wi-Fi and sharing mechanisms (the ability to aggregate mobile and Wi-Fi or other unlicensed spectrum), there is an important but slight shift of Wi-Fi roles. Essentially, Wi-Fi becomes core mobile network infrastructure, even if not owned or operated by any specific mobile service provider.


The ownership of assets might remain, but the use cases shift. There are some new revenue implications. If most of the value provided has an indirect revenue driver, there are some new direct revenue options.



Some venues might be able to provide wholesale access to any commercial mobile service provider, on the model of multi-tenant distributed antenna systems.

But one aspect of each use case does not change too much: private networks tend to be non-revenue-generating; public networks have to generate revenue. In common parlance, private networks provide valuable features at no incremental cost; public networks provide revenue-generating services.

Private networks always have indirect revenue or value models. The private networks are business infrastructure, not direct revenue sources in themselves.

That is true no matter what part of the network we discuss: in-home or premises “local” networks; access networks; metro facilities or long-haul assets.

Google and Facebook own and operate their own undersea networks because it provides more value, and is cheaper, than buying access on public networks. Consumers, organizations and businesses run their own Wi-Fi networks to connect users and devices to public networks.

In some cases, app providers and others also run their own access networks, generally as a complement to public facilities (providing access in high-traffic areas that boost use of their apps), but sometimes also to prod public carriers into boosting investment in access capabilities.

Most metro networks focused on business customers try, when possible, to build their own facilities. Sometimes organizations, governments or businesses also create and operate their “own” metro transport networks as well, for internal use.

In the long-distance undersea and terrestrial networks, perhaps half of all internet traffic actually runs over private networks, not public networks.

Carrier Wi-Fi represents a different business model than traditional “best-effort” Wi-Fi. One also can argue that carrier-grade consumer internet access represents a different business model, as well, a fact well understood by partisans on both sides of the network neutrality debate.

Broadly speaking, best-effort Wi-Fi is a mobile offload use case. Carrier-grade Wi-Fi is an “extend the network indoors” use case.


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