Technologists at telecommunications hardware provider Cisco have predicted that within the next few months mobile carriers will begin to use offloading to seamlessly load-balance data from cellular networks on to faster, lower-latency Wi-Fi networks.
At a media briefing in North Sydney last week, Cisco Systems Australia chief technology officer Kevin Bloch said that in the next 12 months, he expected that carriers like Telstra would begin to make use of Wi-Fi to help balance the load from their cellular networks.
Bloch and Cisco vice president of global technology policy, Dr Robert Pepper, said that it was entirely possible. He said they had already seen examples of the technology in work in the US, where a user could walk into a Starbucks with Wi-Fi access and have their phone automatically and seamlessly take advantage of the lower latency and faster connection of the hotspot, with the carrier charged for the usage.
The process, which the pair called offloading, would use the next generation of wireless hotspot infrastructure that would allow the user to be tracked and connected by identifying their SIM card. This would be used to tie the wireless device to the handset and make it possible to hand off the data connection and allow mobile carriers to bill for the added capability if it required.
According to Pepper, the advantage of using a hotspot would be that in small areas such as coffee shops, there would be the expectation that the number of users would be relatively low, reducing contention. However, both he and Bloch stressed that the back-end infrastructure needed to both support the hand-off process and be connected to a high-capacity backbone, such as fibre.
Businesses struggling with 3G blackspots, but who had existing Wi-Fi investments would be quick to form relationships with mobile carriers, Bloch said, explaining that business users would appreciate the additional bandwidth an immediate Wi-Fi offload would give them.
"Let's say I want to do a print from my iPad. If I do that over 3G on my mobile ... you have a bandwidth constraint. I'm shoving it all the way back to the exchange and coming back to print, whereas with Wi-Fi, I go straight to the printer," Bloch said.
One thing offloading would help solve, said Pepper, with the aid of fibre roll-outs, was latency. He said that in the future, latency would become more important in applications such as collaborative cloud computing. In these cases, he said latency of less than 50ms — a figure that he said most countries' networks had trouble achieving — would become the bare minimum standard to make these applications usable.
He further pointed to the example of future traffic systems where a highway's early warning system might automatically communicate with vehicles in the event of an unexpected incident and require sub-millisecond response times.
As to when offloading would be delivered, Bloch said carriers that were further behind than others, such as Vodafone, would take longer to develop such networks and could not simply use Wi-Fi as a shortcut to improve their performance.
"What [Vodafone have] got to do, in my opinion, and what they're doing is making sure they're getting back up to speed with their existing business. When they get their head above that ... then they will probably have to think about other things like Wi-Fi," he said.
"They, of the three, have got their work cut out for them. It's not a shortcut because at the end of the day, [phones] talk to the network via 3G licensed spectrum."