Massive Growth for WiFi: Real or a Pipe Dream?


By Carl Weinschenk Senior Editor

During the past month, BTR has focused on WiFi. We've looked at 802.11ac and 802.11ad - the two newest arrivals at the unlicensed wireless party - and gauged as best we could the progress being made by CableWiFi, the cooperative arrangement among Bright House Networks,Cablevision (NYSE:CVC),Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA), Cox and Time Warner Cable (NYSE:TWC).

Clearly, there is a tremendous amount happening on the standards and hotspot fronts. The key counterpoint to those developments is a look at the demand for WiFi. All of those moves must be driven by need, and it's important to get an idea of how quickly and from where it is coming.

This is a moving target in more ways than one. Clearly, demand for telecommunications services overall is growing exponentially. Study after study - and we'll look at a couple of very telling ones below - indicate that there is an almost unimaginable increase in the amount of data flowing. That increase is expected to accelerate, at least for most of the balance of the decade - and the smart money says it will continue gaining speed well beyond.

The somewhat more subtle but just as important issue is that how that growing pie is divided up between WiFi and licensed wireless technologies is changing. The trend over time is in WiFi’s direction. Not only is the spectrum cheaper, but it increasingly is ready for prime time: In addition to the versatility added by the new family members, the management and security tools are growing more robust and sophisticated.

The Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO) Visual Networking Index (VNI) essentially is an exercise in astronomical numbers. This year's report, which was released on Feb. 5, said there will be a 13-fold increase in mobile data traffic worldwide between last year and 2017. That's a compound annual growth rate of 66%. The "annual run rate" will be 134 exabytes by the end of the study period. (An exabyte, according to Cisco, is a "unit of information or computer storage equal to one quintillion bytes.") The study says those 134 exabytes of mobile data is 134 times the amount of all IP data - fixed and mobile - that was generated in 2000. Think about that for a moment: In 2017, the amount of mobile data alone will be 134 times the total of all data in 2000.

It's essentially impossible to conceptualize such numbers. But a couple of points are very easy to understand: The growth rate is monumental, and cable operators will be called upon to directly carry or provide support to a tremendous amount of that traffic. One example: Cable will be front and center as small cell approaches take root. The days in which wireless data distribution is dominated by huge cell towers is passing. The next phase is an eclectic mix of those towers - along with femtocells, picocells and other smaller entities - that will move data in creative ways.

The takeaway is that the art and science of mixing and matching cellular and unlicensed spectrum in the manner that makes the best sense in each unique instance is in its infancy. Cable operators will be in the forefront of most of these schemes. 

Small cells are connected to a related growth area, which is in-premises networking. WiFi networks attached to cable operators' plant will traffic data around homes and businesses. Whether cable operators directly service the actual WiFi network or just provide the upstream and downstream network from the edge of the premises, MSO planners must prepare for the deluge. If Cisco is right about the volume of data that is coming, it stands to reason that a tremendous amount of it will be begin and end on home and business WiFi networks.

Another recent study, while it doesn’t cite esoteric numbers such as those in Cisco’s VNI, just as effectively points to the challenges facing cable operators. The Diffusion Group predicts that by 2017, 65% of households will have tablets. The number of these devices per household is expected to double from today's percentage. In 2017, the group says, 58 billion hours of television and video will viewed on tablets. That tablet-only number is equal to 10% of the OTT, video and television sent today, the group says.

A couple of other recent news items suggest that the growth anticipated by Cisco is not a pipe dream. At the CES Show in Las Vegas, Aereo - a service that sends broadband channels to mobile devices - said it is expanding from its New York City launch market to 22 cities across the United States this year. Earlier this month, Intel acknowledged that it plans launch a Web television service.

There are two things to note here. The first is the overall growth. The second - which can get lost amidst the high profile of the first - is the shift in emphasis. Increasingly, reaching mobile devices will be key. WiFi will play a bigger proportionate role in that. The emergence of a complete tool kit of 802.11 standards means that in many cases it will even be used to reach big stationary screens in living rooms and dens.

The speed with which things are changing is breathtaking. The key for cable operators is that WiFi is quickly moving from an ancillary bolt-on to a make-or-break technology.

Carl Weinschenk is the Senior Editor of BTR. Contact him at

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