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2015: The Year of Experience and Scale

by Hemant Chaskar on Jan 16, 2015

Scale versus Scalability

They are different notions. Scale is mostly about numbers, but scalability incorporates business enablement in addition to scale.

In the Wi-Fi industry, we’ve always talked about "scalability at the edge" which is about higher wireless speeds, more clients served, high density and so on. This will continue to be important in 2015 as more applications and clients connect to Wi-Fi.

However, there is another scalability requirement that is becoming increasingly important in some verticals. I call it "scalability behind the edge" and I think that it will be a hot topic in 2015.

What is "scalability behind the edge"?

As I see it, there are two aspects to "scalability behind the edge" - quantitative and qualitative.

Quantitative

Historically, quantitative, in a large WLAN deployment could mean hundreds to thousands of APs under single management. This is characteristic of private enterprise which was the main vertical for Wi-Fi.

Now that ISPs and MSOs are entering the ever increasing Wi-Fi market, the number of APs under single management is set to rise exponentially: going to the hundred thousand to million device range. Tackling the deployment, configuration, monitoring, security, troubleshooting of such a “super-size” deployment is challenging to say the least!

Now you might say that there are a few Wi-Fi providers that have done large scale deployments today. Kudos to them, but keep in mind that they are early adopters. Early adopters are willing to take the challenge of adapting whatever is available at a given point in time and make it fit for their requirements. However, when things become mainstream and the competitive landscape becomes crowded, tailor made solutions are desirable. Current back-end systems are tailored to enterprise deployments and that will not suffice for the “super-size” deployments.

Qualitative

On the qualitative side, the business requirements of these massive deployments differ from the enterprise vertical on many fronts. For example, if you look at ISPs, they are entrenched in low touch home deployment business models. It’s only natural that they will try to apply their established business recipe to business Wi-Fi services.

So the big scalability question is … will today’s back-end systems enable that approach?

Another aspect of qualitative scalability is services delivered on Wi-Fi. In the enterprise context, Wi-Fi mostly supported enterprise applications and where guest Wi-Fi was a matter of convenience for visitors. However in the ISP, MSO or MSP business model, guest Wi-Fi, or public facing Wi-Fi if you will, is a key element of the business offering. The scalability aspect stemming from this requirement is in the form of big data set analytics and integration of multiple guest engagement platforms into Wi-Fi.

Quantitative and Qualitative Scalability Behind the Edge

“Scalability behind the edge” has 2 vector considerations: quantitative (volume) and qualitative (business enablement). In 2015, expect to see innovations on both fronts.

What type of engagement platforms will be prominent in 2015?

Last year we already saw the emergence of MAC analytics, social Wi-Fi and loyalty recruiting over guest Wi-Fi. Love them or hate them, these will continue to be around, and are likely to be “super-charged” in 2015.

In 2014, from a Wi-Fi analytics and engagement perspective, it held true that “what happened in Wi-Fi stayed in Wi-Fi”.

However, now there is an increased push to integrate Wi-Fi engagement with back-end CRM platforms. Such integration will require high performance APIs between the Wi-Fi system and the CRM platforms. This will be used to derive insights from various big data sets.

What will happen to captive portal in 2015? And what about Hotspot 2.0?

Captive portals initially came into being as a legal requirement for disclaimer. With disclaimers in place, marketing discovered that they could leverage the portals for customer engagement. Since legal is unlikely to remove the requirement for disclaimers, marketing is likely to continue leveraging captive portals. In fact, I see them becoming richer in terms of content, as well as becoming more contextual and dynamic.

Also, in the past, a technical issue with captive portals has been the variability in how different clients react to captive portals. This was either due to their proprietary captive portal auto-detect mechanisms and/or micro-browser implementations. Sometimes this would even become a blocker in establishing a Wi-Fi connection. In the future, these types of technical issues should go away as a natural path to maturing implementations. Hotspot 2.0 can also help here somewhat as it has a mechanism to indicate captive portal to prospective clients.

In the service provider space, Hotspot 2.0 will be prominent and the current form of captive portals will dissappear. However, a new incarnation is now emerging, it is called “in-browser messaging on Wi-Fi”.

In-browser messaging on Wi-Fi: What is it?

In-browser messaging on Wi-Fi provides the ability to overlay content and in-browser apps on a Wi-Fi user’s browsing session. This approach renders captive portal 1.0 irrelevant but the engagement channel now exists in the form of in-browser messaging.

Of course, you can also use in-browser messaging along with captive portal... The more things change, the more they stay the same … or do they?

What about alternative technologies like iBeacon? Are there others?

In 2015, there will be some mainstream deployments of iBeacon. Though people talk about iBeacon as fine grained location tracking technology, I predict that most deployments this year will be zone based. There again, I think the biggest challenge is the back-end which is where decisions are made on what content to send to the user based on an iBeacon proximity trigger.

This is the job of the "offer layer" and the "content policy layer" that need to be present behind the iBeacon infrastructure. These layers are mostly missing today (at scale) and will evolve in 2015.

Beyond iBeacon, there may be furtherance of other techniques such as POS (Point of Sale) integration, surveillance footage analytics and so on.

 

Mobile Mind Shift: the expectation that you can get what you want in your immediate context and moment of need. Source: Forrester

Concerns around Monetization, Intrusiveness and Privacy are not going away!

Monetization, intrusiveness and privacy will continue to be hot topics in 2015. I categorize monetization and intrusiveness as “opinions” and privacy as “requirement”.

Monetization

Monetization of digital engagement is the basis of the public Internet economy. Whether it’s search tools, social media, or Internet email, all providers monetize user engagement by selling ads and analytics on their pages. In return, you get access to these offerings without explicitly paying for them. Accordingly, if you consider public Wi-Fi as part of the broader public Internet, then it can be inferred that public Wi-Fi will be monetized in the same manner.

Intrusiveness

When you go to an NHL hockey game, there are ads around the rink boards but the main action is on the ice. In that same vein, consider that there are ads around the pages you browse on the public Internet.

As in enjoyment of a hockey game or consumption of content on a browser, I think that the key is to strike the right balance between engagement and intrusion.

This balance might be different across markets and geographies. Unlike the NHL, the Spengler Cup hockey tournament held annually in Switzerland features a more overt advertising strategy on player and referee uniforms. What is the right approach? It depends what the market will bear.

Getting back to Wi-Fi, how can meaningful engagement be achieved without offending your users? That is the key question and I think that the answer should be “within the limits of acceptable quid pro quo for the target market”. Strike the right balance and most people will be fine with it; cross the line and users go away.

The boundaries of Wi-Fi monetization and intrusiveness will be tested in 2015.

Privacy

Privacy concern exists for all information that is digitized and put in the network. This is not just a Wi-Fi engagement specific issue. So we need to take cues from what is being done in other fields for privacy protection.

It then comes down to the chaining of multiple controls to minimize the chance of violation. The controls that stand out are:

  • Opt-in controls (user chooses what to disclose),
  • Engagement application and Wi-Fi infrastructure controls (These try to limit collection of personally identifiable information without the user having to make a selection. For example, controls on OAuth server is Social Wi-Fi or Facebook Graph API 2.0 controls about what information an app can collect), and
  • Legal, policy and compliance controls.

There is a wealth of experience on this front with organizations in ISP, MSO and retail verticals. So, I am hoping that right balance will be achieved between engagement and privacy over Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi Scalability and Engagement in 2015

To summarizes, in 2015 we can expect 5 key Wi-Fi Trends:

  1. Super-Size: Deployments as large as hundred thousands to million APs
  2. Super-Charge: ISP, MSO, MSP business model enablement, increased spectrum of engagement applications, CRM integration and big data set analytics
  3. Scalability Behind the Edge: Importance of backend systems to support Super-size and Super-charge
  4. Right Offer, Right Time, Right Place: Integration of multiple platforms such as Wi-Fi, iBeacon and other innovations
  5. Opinions and Requirements: Concerns around monetization, intrusiveness and privacy are hot topics in 2015

May the New Year be filled with plentiful Wi-Fi!.

Related Information:

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View the companion On The Fly Wi-Fi webcast (episode 13 on-demand): Mike Leibovitz and Hemant Chaskar discuss scale and engagement trends for 2015.

On The Fly Wi-Fi

Topics: Carrier Wi-Fi, Industry, WiFi, Social, WLAN planning, Managed Service, Privacy, WiFi Access, Retail