Turning home Wi-Fi into community hotspots: the ins and outs of a new trend

Tammy Parker, FierceWirelessTechThe trend toward providing public Wi-Fi access from residential gateways for offloading and hotspot services is catching on. While I understand the sense in taking the gobs of unused broadband bandwidth being delivered to private residences and making it available for widespread use, I nonetheless see some issues that could impact this trend's broad adoption in the United States.

Several service rollouts exemplify this growing trend. Madrid-based Fon, which encourages users to share their Wi-Fi router signal with others in exchange for free access to other Fon hotspots around the world, recently entered the U.S. market. Its $59 Fonera router splits a gateway owner's Wi-Fi signal in two, with a private signal for the owner and a shared signal for other Fon members as well as the owner's guests. The two signals have different SSIDs.

Likewise, European cable TV operator Liberty Global has launched home router partitioning, also switching on additional public SSIDs in residential gateways, in order to build out its hotspot coverage. In the United States, the nation's largest ISP, Comcast, is also using Wi-Fi gateways in subscriber homes to power neighborhood hotspots. And according to Light Reading, Cox Communications is now considering whether to follow suit and use its subscriber modems to power public Wi-Fi hotspots.

Despite this growing traction, I wonder whether partitioning might eventually cause quality of service issues as community hotspot use grows. I've also been pondering whether there will be any fallout from dueling business models as home broadband suppliers--meaning cable companies and telcos--as well as third parties such as Fon pursue Wi-Fi partitioning initiatives.

When it comes to service issues, I am not alone in thinking that partitioning home access point signals to provide Wi-Fi service to the public could get tricky if the hotspot portion of the service really takes off in areas of heavy offloading. Partitioning "presents its own challenges in terms of quality of service," Lior Weiss, vice president of marketing and business development at chipmaker Celeno Communications, recently told me.

As he explained it, bandwidth consumption is affected by the quality of the client device and how far it is from the access point. A smartphone equipped with a simple 1x1 Wi-Fi radio that is offloading data traffic from outside on the street to a residential Wi-Fi gateway will obviously have a very low link budget and will therefore start consuming a lot of bandwidth off of the access point.

Weiss contends that bandwidth will be essentially "stolen" from the private SSID. "The resources of the private network for the household members are going to be compromised," he added.

"This problem becomes pretty complex when you have dense networks, multiple SSIDs and a pretty large database of heterogeneous clients--some of them are weak, some of them are strong--and they're all using different types of services with different levels of priority. This is where your Wi-Fi access point starts to be challenged," Weiss said.

According to Weiss, Celeno has an airtime management technology that can protect SSIDs in this situation, and Liberty Global uses that technology in its residential gateways. Similarly, Nina Sodhi, CEO of Fon U.S., recently assured me that Fon manages each Fon member's shared signal so it never becomes a significant part of a member's bandwidth usage. She emphasized that services--such as video streaming--being delivered via the private SSID will always take precedence over services being enabled over the public SSID.

Maybe quality of service will not become an issue if all of the companies enabling gateway partitioning have the foresight to ensure that users of public SSIDs do not receive Wi-Fi hotspot service at the expense of residential subscribers. However, I can still see where the business model issue might get tricky.

For example, Fon prefers to partner with telcos and other broadband service providers, but it also sells directly to end users. For its entry into the U.S. market, Fon brilliantly upgraded its Fonera router to act as a signal booster, knowing many people already have their own Wi-Fi routers but could use help extending signals to dead spots in their residences.

So, let's say someone signs up directly with Fon and deploys the Fonera as a signal booster for their existing Wi-Fi gateway. What happens when that Fon customer's home broadband provider--Comcast, for instance--wants to also partition the residential Wi-Fi gateway that it is leasing to that customer in order to extend its own hotspot footprint? That would seem to have all of the ingredients for a dazed and confused SSID soup.

While I think these challenges are probably easily surmounted, it will nonetheless be interesting to see how quickly U.S. customers glom onto the practice of making their private Wi-Fi access points into conduits for public Internet access. On a Broadband Reports forum, some Comcast customers have already expressed frustration at the difficulties they encountered in trying to turn off the public SSID on their Wi-Fi access points.

That indicates to me that not everyone is comfortable with sharing bandwidth with total strangers. However, beneficial pricing--perhaps discounted pricing on home broadband in exchange for enabling a community hotspot--could change that attitude as well.--Tammy