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October 2, 2015

Merging cellular and wi-fi: the death of siloed telcos

C-level briefing: Devicescape's Mike Hibberd explains why ubiquitous connectivity isn't far away.

By Alexander Sword

Could we move away from having individual mobile, fixed and wi-fi providers and towards simply having overall connectivity providers?

This is what Mike Hibberd, Director of Marketing at Devicescape, suggests, saying his company is blurring the lines between cellular and wi-fi networks.

"There’s the cellular network, wi-fi at home or work, commercial wi-fi like the cloud, and then there’s this mass of public wi-fi that’s offered by all sorts of different businesses," says Hibberd.

"The problem with the public wi-fi is that it’s owned by all sorts of different people, the quality is extremely variable and the ease of access is variable."

"What we wanted to do was turn this resource into a coherent thing that could be used in the same way as a cellular network. We take a fragmented environment and create a coherent environment from it."

Devicescape’s mission is to bring the convenience of cellular networks to wi-fi networks.

"On the cellular network you get a completely managed experience, like a concierge service," says Hibberd. "You pull out your phone and you’re connected. If LTE is available it connects to that, if not you get the next best.

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"On wi-fi, users really have to sort it out for themselves. You have to find the right SSID, click on the relevant one and navigate whatever access process is required. It’s just a real slog. It might be that you have to go and find a password somewhere to log on."

So how does Devicescape tackle this?

"We use software that sits on people’s smartphones to discover all these different wi-fi networks. Once people have connected we monitor those locations for quality in real time. If the locations perform well then we add them to what we call the curated virtual network.

"The consumer goes into one of these places, pulls out their phone and they’re already connected; in the end, users won’t even think about having to get connected because they’ll just be connected."

This model could lead to a broader shift in the role of communications providers.

"What you’ve got is an industry that’s grown up very much in terms of building, owning and operating these networks, so different forms of connectivity have ended up being siloed, managed in different ways and offered by different parties.

"What’s happened is this is all merging into one thing; more mobile operators are getting into wi-fi, there are cable operators with big home spot deployments looking to MVNO plays.

"It’s all kind of coming together and there are a lot of new players that are making wi-fi a far more central part of the commercial offering that they are delivering to end users."

This includes FreedomPop, which launched its free MVNO in the UK this week after several years in the US.

The question is whether the incumbents can respond to this trend. Certainly the vital signs are there; Brendan O’Reilly, CTO of O2, commented in a recent CBR interview that getting wi-fi calling and VoLTE and the "seamless handover between the two" working is a key priority for the operator.

However Hibberd is sceptical that any operator will be able to build a comprehensive network from scratch. This, he says, is the key difference for Devicescape.

"The building out infrastructure to deliver ubiquitous indoor connectivity is not possible; it’s just too expensive and too time-consuming. You have to take advantage of the resources that already exist."

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