Wi-Fi continues to be a hot topic for mobile operators struggling to keep up with demand for mobile broadband services. Next week during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, several vendors are expected to introduce solutions that will make Wi-Fi basically another element of the mobile network.

Wi-Fi hotspots have proved beneficial for AT&T Mobility as it struggles with mobile-data consumption. Analysts estimate that about 20% of Apple iPhone traffic runs over public Wi-Fi networks, and likely another 60% is generated on home Wi-Fi networks, said Phil Marshall, head of Tolaga Research.

“Wi-Fi offload will become a crucial part of a service provider’s business model,” Marshall said. “The challenge to face is the fact that unless there is adequate intelligence in the network, that traffic disappears. Operators can’t manage quality of service.”

Nokia Siemens Networks introduced this week the Smart WLAN Connectivity Solution that selectively offloads traffic onto Wi-Fi without any break in service. Today, many smartphones feature auto authentication to automatically log onto a Wi-Fi network, but the capability isn’t seamless. The Nokia solution also allows operators to use the existing services and functionality supported by its packet core network — such as authentication, charging, policy control and traffic management — for both mobile and Wi-Fi traffic, in a unified way.

In China, widespread rollouts of Wi-Fi already are taking place. Ruckus Wireless announced that Chongqing Telecom, a unit of China Telecom, selected the vendor's Wi-Fi products and technology for a large-scale, citywide deployment of Wi-Fi hotspots for a new service called Tianyi Broadband, which bundles wired broadband, Wi-Fi and CDMA 1x EV-DO in one package, allowing users to connect to China Telecom's services through a single account. The operator is using Wi-Fi to offload data traffic from its CDMA 1x and EV-DO networks to preserve capacity on the latter networks without having to invest in new 3G infrastructure.

A Ruckus spokesman said that the company will be introducing new products and technology for mobile operators in Barcelona aimed at addressing capacity and coverage issues, using Wi-Fi in a more strategic and integrated fashion.

As such, it’s expected that Wi-Fi not only will be integrated with 3G networks, but LTE networks as well, as the need to offload data does not diminish with LTE. Meanwhile, public-safety will benefit from leveraging public-safety-owned Wi-Fi hotspots.

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For more information on mobile data, attend these sessions at IWCE in Las Vegas, March 7–11, 2011.