Feature Story

Between a Smartphone and a Hot Spot

by Julie Pitta

Mobile operators are looking at unlicensed spectrum and Wi-Fi to expand their networks' capacity to process data traffic.

Efficient and discreet, smartphones have become the personal assistants many of us had dreamed of. A spate of mobile device announcements at last week's Consumer Electronics Show only underscored their growing importance around the world.

But as indispensable as smartphones have become to consumers and business people alike, they have created a serious problem for first-tier mobile service providers. Mobile networks were never designed to handle large volumes of data.  This issue became magnified after Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007. With the iPhone came a wave of clever data applications designed by a third-party market that continues to flourish. Not only have smartphones like the iPhone and its competitors dumped a mountain of text, images and video onto mobile networks, but so have gaming consoles, and laptops and notebooks. This data has formed an obstacle so great that today's mobile networks are rapidly becoming the equivalent of the Los Angeles freeway at rush hour.

Dropped calls and a chronic inability to connect at busy places like sports stadiums, shopping malls and train stations are typical problems for today's smartphone users. Sluggish performance and today's cumbersome authentication processes discourage smartphone usage and threatens to slow what has become a vibrant market for third-party applications.

Disqus: What other services and functions would you like to have on your smartphone?

In 2010, international mobile data traffic almost tripled for the third consecutive year even as the global economy staggered under a recession. The traffic jams promise to get worse.  According to Cisco, by 2015, nearly 3 billion Internet users will generate 966 exabytes of global IP traffic each year from nearly 15 billion global network connections (which includes fixed and mobile personal devices, and machine-to-machine connections).

This has left services operators hungry for additional bandwidth so that users can run capacity-intensive applications and video with the same level of performance that they enjoy at home. A recent survey discovered that nearly half of smartphone use occurs at home. With necessity being the mother of invention, tier one mobile operators are seriously looking at unlicensed spectrum and Wi-Fi as a solution to their data traffic problems.

The idea makes good economic sense. Many carriers already operate a significant number of hotspots. The challenge lies in creating a user-experience on par with 3G/4G, offering the same level of performance, security and transparency.

Hotspot 2.0, an alliance of mobile service operators, network equipment suppliers and device makers, has taken on the engineering challenges posed by seamlessly offloading data traffic from cellular networks onto hotspots. Trials began at the end of 2011.

In addition to helping relieve congested cellular networks, smartphones on Wi-Fi offer a whole new way for businesses to interact with customers. Consider the possibilities.  At a sporting event, your smartphone would automatically connect to the Wi-Fi network in the arena offering specialized applications. For example, an app might let you order food to be delivered to your seat. At a museum, your phone seamlessly connects to the institution's Wi-Fi and asks whether you wish to enrich your experience with applications that augment the physical exhibits. Your phone might also access an audio tour from a respected scholar or a video reenactment that adds to an exhibit.

"Wi-Fi has become part of the connectivity experience rather than an afterthought," said Bob Friday, head of Cisco's Hotspot 2.0 initiative. "Users will access entirely new experiences through their smartphones."

But from the user's point of view, the network is invisible. No longer will users have to proceed through a list of steps of time-consuming and battery-draining steps to gain access to the Internet and the goodies that go with it. At the same time, users can be secure in the knowledge that their connections are secure.

Final deployments of Hotspot 2.0 are expected in a year. Your smartphone just got smarter.

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