A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.
Comcast’s announcement on its earnings call last week that it is triggering the MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) relationship with Verizon, and plans to test a “Wi-Fi First” wireless service over the next few months will once again shine a spotlight on the relationship between cellular and Wi-Fi. My view is that there are still some significant usability challenges that must be addressed before a “Wi-First” service, as I call it, is ready for prime time.
Wi-First services along the lines of what Comcast plans to offer have already been available for a few years from MVNOs such as Republic Wireless and Scratch Wireless. And Intel and FreedomPop recently announced that they will be working together on a new phone for FreedomPop’s Wi-First service. Their services, available on specific devices, are positioned as a less expensive alternative to a typical cellular plan, offering unlimited voice, text and data while on Wi-Fi, with the option of using the cellular network as a backup when Wi-Fi is not available. Google’s Project Fi adds a twist of choosing the “always best connected” scenario between Wi-Fi and two cellular networks: Sprint and T-Mobile. Cablevision has been offering its Freewheel service for about a year, but the fact there is no cellular option when outside the range of a hotspot is a major drawback.
So far, Wi-First services have not taken off. The services are available only on select, purpose-built devices. They have not been heavily marketed. There have been some issues with the user experience. And cellular prices have been dropping. For those looking for a bargain, prepaid services such as Cricket and Straight Talk offer plans for as little as $30 per month.
A Comcast MVNO, however, will up the Wi-First ante, by virtue of its size (23 million broadband subscribers, 55 million households passed, ~150 million “POPs”), and the fact it has deployed 10 million hotspots as part of the Cable WiFi consortium that also includes Time Warner, Cox and BrightHouse. These Cable WiFi hotspots are a combination of about 9.5 million residential gateways (APs) equipped with a dual SSID (homespots) and 500,000 additional indoor and outdoor APs that Comcast and the other cable MSOs have deployed. The density of coverage in some neighborhoods is quite compelling. Comcast has marketed Xfinity WiFi as a convenient and useful broadband extension for its existing customers and as a way of saving on cellular data usage.
The idea is that Comcast’s wireless service would leverage these millions of APs, and would use Verizon’s wireless network when not in range of a Wi-Fi hotspot. Presumably, Comcast’s service would be less expensive than conventional wireless plans, and would be a convenient add-on for its existing subscribers, delivering Comcast potentially $30 to $40 in additional monthly ARPU for each customer that takes the service (before payments to Verizon).
Note also that, even if on the surface a Wi-First service might appear to be a threat to the mobile operators, they benefit from the MVNO relationship and the fact that data traffic is being offloaded from the cellular network.
The early Wi-First providers have done some pioneering work in developing a seamless experience between cellular and Wi-Fi. This includes the ability for cellular features such as text messaging and voice mail to be delivered when the phone is in Wi-Fi mode. The handoff of voice calls between cellular and Wi-Fi works some, but not all, of the time. And Wi-Fi voice quality can be excellent when the stars align between AP signal, device, software and so on.
But in my view, there are two major usability bugaboos that need to be addressed before Wi-First services are ready for the mass market. First, there continue to be issues related to how phones switch between “Wi-Fi mode” and “cellular mode.” Put simply, smartphones still often default to a Wi-Fi hotspot, even if the signal is weak or it is congested. This issue will become even more pronounced when voice is added to the equation, since voice quality really falls off a cliff when the signal is poor or the AP is congested. There also continue to be issues of having to reauthenticate to hotspots that are already known, which impacts the idea of a seamless Wi-First user experience.
In my use of Cable WiFi outside the home, for example, I frequently encounter inexplicable “cannot join” messages, or experience very slow speeds, even where it appears there’s a good signal from the Cable WiFi AP. This also frequently happens in public locations that the phone “remembers,” such as at airports and coffee shops. In fact, in an increasing percentage of instances when away from the home or office, I often find myself turning off Wi-Fi, because the cellular network is more consistent, reliable and, ironically, often faster. Plus, cellular data costs less than it used to. This is a far cry from a few years ago, when customers invoked Wi-Fi wherever they could.
Apple has clearly recognized this issue, offering a new feature called Wi-Fi Assist, which switches the iPhone to “cellular” mode when the Wi-Fi signal is weak. However well-intentioned, Apple has received some backlash because it didn’t do a lot to inform customers of this feature, which can cause a spike in cellular data usage charges.
The second major issue is that Wi-First services must be available on the majority of devices users already own. Today, services from MVNOs such as Republic, Scratch and Google only work on a handful of devices customized with purpose-built software for Wi-First. If Wi-First services aren’t available on the leading iOS and Android devices, they’ll never have broad appeal.
Fortunately, there’s progress on this issue. Wi-Fi calling is now supported in iOS, and is becoming more broadly supported by the operators, in addition to T-Mobile. Voice over Wi-Fi works pretty well, though there still continue to be issues when multiple users/devices contend for a hotspot, and with handoff to cellular when leaving an AP. The spread of VoLTE should ease some of the handoff issues, since it’ll all eventually be data anyway.
There is a lot of complexity involved in delivering a reliable, seamless and high-quality service combining cellular and Wi-Fi, which is why Google, Comcast and others have been decidedly cautious in their approach. There is no panacea, just a lot of incremental work on both the network and device sides to tune and refine the experience. The major usability issues must be addressed before a Wi-First service is ready for the mainstream mass market.
A leading wireless industry analyst and consultant, Mark Lowenstein is the managing director of Mobile Ecosystem. Most recently, Lowenstein was a member of the senior leadership team at Verizon Wireless, where as vice president of strategy he led the company’s efforts in product and business planning, market segmentation, national pricing and customer intelligence for both consumer and enterprise markets. Reach him @marklowenstein.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.