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Will 2016 be another breakthrough year for Wi-Fi?

By Claus Hetting, Entrepreneur & Wi-Fi Evangelist

2015 Wi-Fi Wrap Up and 2016 Predictions

It’s the start of a new year and a great time to look back to take stock of what happened across this great Wi-Fi industry in 2015. But even more importantly: This is also a great time to look ahead. I believe we’ve only seen the beginnings of Wi-Fi as the world’s no. 1 Internet connectivity engine for everyone, everywhere.

Looking back at big Wi-Fi themes in 2015

Wi-Fi technology advanced leaps and bounds in 2015 with the new 802.11ac standard and gigabit speeds being deployed everywhere. With Wi-Fi carrying more than 90% of the global mobile device traffic in some markets (on Android in e.g. Brazil and Germany), there can be no doubt: We’re living in a Wi-Fi First world.

And it’s no surprise, really. The drivers are clear: Low cost, high performance, lots of capacity. While most mobile carriers are still lukewarm on Wi-Fi, cable operators are rolling out Wi-Fi by the tens of thousands of hotspots across the US, Europe, and Asia. And ‘homespots’ have become a standard practice with millions of home routers being enabled for public access.

Wi-Fi calling hit the headlines as many Tier 1 carriers immediately embraced Apple’s version of Wi-Fi calling. This is no small deal. I believe that anything indoor – homes, offices, public venues – is now established Wi-Fi territory and that this trend is irreversible. We’ll see a lot more of that in 2016.

There was also tremendous momentum behind City Wi-Fi networks. So many City Wi-Fi networks have gone up in the past year that it’s hard to keep track. And it’s not only about making cities ‘smarter’: It’s about giving residents and visitors access to free Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi is good business for cities everywhere.

LTE-U: Wi-Fi’s not-so-friendly neighbour

For the first time since its inception, Wi-Fi is facing a challenger in the unlicensed bands. CableLabs, Google, and others have clearly stated that LTE-U will not be friendly to the Wi-Fi services that are today a cornerstone of the Internet economy. The LTE-U vs. Wi-Fi battle has raged for all of 2015 and is sure to continue in 2016. The outcome is still uncertain.

The LTE-U vs. Wi-Fi battle exposed big issues: Mobile carriers aim to replace Wi-Fi with LTE because Wi-Fi is a threat to their businesses and they will invade the unlicensed bands with LTE if they have to. The Wi-Fi industry has – outside the Wi-Fi Alliance and a few scattered folks – been poorly organized in tackling the issue. Getting the Wi-Fi industry better organized is on my to-do list for 2016, I can assure you.

Milestones in the business of big footprint Wi-Fi

The past year also saw big advanced in what I like to call mobile/Wi-Fi convergence: Google launched its Project Fi as a ‘network of networks’ that also includes a million free Wi-Fi hotspots. Google is pressuring the carrier industry to take another look at how to deliver wireless services, and the company is on track to shake up the mobile industry, just like they’ve done with Google Fiber across the USA. I can’t wait to see what Google’s got in store for us in 2016.

Meanwhile iPass teamed up with Fon and Devicescape to create the world’s biggest Wi-Fi network by a huge margin: Some 50 million hotspots (some centrally managed, some crowd-sourced) are now available as a single, unified footprint across the world via iPass.

Six Wi-Fi predictions for 2016

Part of this is probably wishful thinking but I believe at least some of the following predictions will hold true for 2016:

  1. Connectivity managers come of age: Finding & accessing Wi-Fi networks will finally be seamless and intelligent as will switching between mobile and Wi-Fi on the fly. Consumers will finally get what they want: The best service wherever they are regardless of technology.
  2. Wi-Fi will become the OTT network of choice for Internet content & service providers: Inexpensive and ideal for video, big aggregated Wi-Fi networks will become the medium of choice for the likes of Google, Facebook, Netflix, Amazon, Microsoft, and many more.
  3. Carriers will begin testing larger-scale LTE-U deployments although such networks are unlikely to do much damage to Wi-Fi services to start with. If they do, carriers will face a slew of lawsuits from big enterprises that have invested heavily in Wi-Fi networks.
  4. Wi-Fi First goes mainstream: At least one major US cableco will launch a nationwide Wi-Fi First service that will rattle the mobile industry. I’m betting that two such services will be launched and probably at least one by acquisition.
  5. A comeback for retail: At least one or two major retail chains will launch Wi-Fi-based consumer engagement services that will inspire a comeback for brick-and-mortar stores. It probably won’t turn out to be exactly what we think but data analytics and location-based services will play an important role.
  6. City Wi-Fi continues to surge: City Wi-Fi networks will continue to mushroom across the US and emerging markets. For the visionary entrepreneur there’s a huge opportunity in linking these up for big footprint Wi-Fi connectivity services.
Check out the 2016 WiFi Now Conference in Washington D.C.