WBA: Wi-Fi is part of 5G, and more Hotspot 2.0 is on the way

To hear the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) tell it, there’s no doubt about it: Wi-Fi will be a key part of 5G in the years to come.

“The way I see it is things are converging and they’re converging very rapidly,” said JR Wilson, WBA chairman and vice president of Partnerships & Alliances at AT&T.

802.11ax is going to be part of the 5G standards, and although a couple years ago Wilson might have had to convince his colleagues about Wi-Fi being part of 5G, “I don’t think I’ve got to convince anyone anymore,” he said.

In fact, it’s not going to matter whether it’s Wi-Fi, cellular, LTE-M or any other access technology. “It’s really going to be just about how do you deliver an overall experience and that experience being very seamless and how all those different air interfaces operate together and how you go about integrating them,” he told FierceWirelessTech.

Of course, that means the WBA is working closely with 3GPP, IEEE, the Wi-Fi Alliance, GSMA and all those bodies, including the Small Cell Forum. In the next couple of years, given the accelerated rate of convergence, “I think we’re going to have to work even closer with them,” he said.

The WBA has a lot on its plate: In the next few years, it’s going to continue working on improving interoperability, provisioning and authentication, all the while being mindful of security and privacy issues. Once Wi-Fi is integrated into the 5G network and it all looks like one system to the customer, then it will be about managing the traffic across the converged ecosystem.

The vast majority of AT&T’s Wi-Fi network is Hotspot 2.0, and the good news is that a lot of other companies are realizing the benefit of having Hotspot 2.0 in their network. Hotspot 2.0 is designed to make Wi-Fi roaming as seamless and simple as cellular roaming, and the more companies that deploy it, the better for the whole Wi-Fi ecosystem.

Given the price compression in the wireless industry and the unlicensed nature of Wi-Fi, the business case for Hotspot 2.0 is only going to get stronger, Wilson predicts. That’s because unlicensed technologies can be deployed at a lower cost while maintaining the quality of service, and the companies with the best cost structures are going to prevail.

“You’re going to see a lot more companies start to utilize Hotspot 2.0 as part of their overall network strategy,” he said.

RELATED: AT&T likely offloading some cellular traffic to Boingo Wi-Fi hotspots: Sources

Naturally, AT&T is interested in boosting its Wi-Fi footprint in more venues. Last year, Boingo announced that an unnamed “tier 1 carrier” had joined Sprint as a Boingo Wi-Fi offloading customer. Sources told FierceWireless at the time that the second carrier was most likely AT&T.

Wilson said that AT&T and Boingo have been working together for years, and the two companies have a good relationship. However, he declined to comment on any specifics.

As the exclusive carrier in the early days of the iPhone, AT&T’s traffic unexpectedly skyrocketed, taxing the cellular network and frustrating customers. That’s when it embraced Wi-Fi in a big way. Putting more traffic onto Wi-Fi led to more usage on both the Wi-Fi and cellular networks.

AT&T has seen accelerated video demand across its entire business. Of course, everyone naturally thinks about consumer-based video services, and that segment is certainly growing at a rapid pace.

“Similarly, we are seeing more and more video-driven applications in the enterprise sector,” he said. AT&T saw that play out in the fleet space. A couple years ago, it was largely about tracking vehicles and trucks around the globe. There has been a progression of IoT based services; now, the fleet business is using video in new ways, putting cameras in the cab or monitoring high-value cargo. That’s driving tremendous usage for both cellular and Wi-Fi, Wilson said, with video being used in ways nobody thought much about even a couple years ago.