Voice over Wi-Fi: Cable versus LTE: Part II

In the article “How Big a Threat Is VoWi-Fi to the LTE Operator?” (Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8hgAzT073Q) I illustrated the potential threat cable voice-over-Wi-Fi is to the mobile network operator. In Part II of the LTE threat I look at this issue from the CxO’s point of view of each organization.

Cable executives see VoWi-Fi as “nothing but upside.” VoWi-Fi enhances customer bundles, adds new revenue opportunities and is technically achievable. From a network perspective, their HFC networks are widely deployed, minimize access point backhaul issues, and have a presence in millions of homes and small/medium businesses. This physical presence gives them instant Wi-Fi access points on which they can add voice services. Additionally, they have a voice backend, and they are well positioned to handle the additional voice traffic throughout their network. Given these strengths, they can and will move fast, hence, “nothing but upside.”

Mobile network operator (MNO) executives see Voice over Wi-Fi as “nothing but threats” to subscriber relationships, top-line revenue and profits and CAPEX flexibility. These threats are visualized in a number of ways. MNOs lack a physical presence in the home beyond the end-user devices with most users already off-loading to broadband delivered Wi-Fi for performance and data cap reasons. Although LTE backhaul networks have substantial capacity it is questionable whether they can gracefully cope with an onslaught of Wi-Fi data traffic. No company will deploy a voice-only Wi-Fi network. MNOs that do not own fixed network assets have a more daunting competitive environment; however, those that do have fixed network assets still have substantial challenges.

Cable is not without its own challenges. Given that they will be a new entrant to the mobile voice market they must meet certain baselines of quality of service, which will add to the deployment time, cost and complexity. Cable companies will never build out an LTE network. Never is a long time but, this is a safe bet. True, they can become MVNOs or be bold and buy Sprint or T-Mobile. Without LTE cable companies will not be able to offer the coverage MNOs can.

New Wi-Fi voice and data technologies are under development. Improvements to the over-the-air protocols to address fairness and contention are emerging but VoWi-Fi technologies are nascent and standards take time. All of this will delay cable’s first mover advantage.

MNOs have advantages as well. The biggest, as well as the most technically challenging, is intelligently leveraging their fixed and mobile networks to gain real-time insights of both networks’ end-to-end conditions such as congestion. Then, using these insights they can provide a superior quality of experience to their subscribers, particularly those deemed as high-value subscribers. For example, a default “off-load-to-Wi-Fi” strategy may not make sense for all subscribers if the Wi-Fi network is congested and the LTE network is not. MNOs with small cells sites can upgrade them with LTE/Wi-Fi combo devices. The MNO has already solved the tough small cell site problems (real estate, backhaul, powering, etc.) so swapping out devices is manageable. Keep in mind that these small cell sites are not randomly dispersed. They are located in high-traffic, high-value locations. This enables the MNO to quickly expand its Wi-Fi network presence in these and high-value locations. Even more powerful is the ability to add Wi-Fi to its Self- Optimizing/Organizing Network investments.

The MNOs have a bold strategy available to them. They can move fast too, and because they have a carrier-class LTE network on which to fall back they don’t have to start with a gold plated Wi-Fi network. They state that they want to be more like web companies and deploy services fast and improve them over time. On this point, they can walk the talk and rapidly deploy a data-only Wi-Fi network that’s “good enough” and let their subscribers use it for free until they attain the level of quality they really want. A lesson from the web world is capturing customers quickly, which is paramount to success.

Voice-over-Wi-Fi has the real potential to be a major disruption to the service provider industry. Cable companies see this as nothing but upside, whereas mobile network operators see this as nothing but threats. Both have advantages and challenges. Cable has the footprint, voice backend and potential first mover advantage. Yet, as a new mobile voice entrant they have minimum quality thresholds they must meet to be credible. MNOs, on the other hand, lack a strong physical presence in the home and may face network capacity challenges with the addition of massive amounts of Wi-Fi data traffic. However, they have the ability, if bold enough, to take a page out of the web company playbook and move even faster to deploy a “good enough” data-only Wi-Fi network using today’s technologies and their current installed infrastructures.

Want more information or to discuss strategies to dominate the game changing market of voice-over-Wi-Fi? Cable companies, mobile network operators and vendors to both industries contact ACG atsales@acgcc.com to schedule an appointment to discuss these issues with our analyst.

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