Carriers Use Wi-Fi to Ease Smartphone Traffic

Carriers Use Wi-Fi to Ease Smartphone Traffic

A growing number of wireless carriers are partnering with broadband companies to shift heavy data loads to Wi-Fi “hotzones,” as traffic on networks becomes more and more congested.

While “access point” technology has long existed in devices, allowing them to send and receive data in small areas like homes and cafes, these partnerships are investing in beefed-up versions to create “hotzones” that can reroute heavy loads in areas that need it most.

AT&T is the most prominent example of a carrier using hotspots to help manage cellular traffic. The Dallas, Texas-based carrier has long struggled with criticisms about its network performance since 2007, when the iPhone arrived. In May of last year, it launched a hotzone in New York’s Times Square, testing the standard as an addition to its area coverage. It then expanded Wi-Fi coverage to Charlotte, N.C. and the areas around Chicago’s Wrigley Field.

The trial was successful enough that in December AT&T added more hotzones in New York City and San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center. Continuing the rapid expansion over the next year, AT&T is using Wi-Fi as a cost-effective complement to its existing cellular network.

Hotspots come with many benefits, which leverage the ability for Wi-Fi signals to handle heavy amounts of data over fairly short distances. Cellular networks, originally designed for voice, work better for relatively low data amounts over long distances.

Wi-Fi access points are smaller, easier to install and much less expensive than building cellular towers, although towers can transmit signals for several miles, compared to an access point’s reach of several hundred feet. But there are drawbacks to hotzones, which operate on unlicensed frequencies, which can create problems if multiple network signals interfere with one another. Steps for devices to connect to hotzones may vary, with some requiring manual connection.

As data usage on smartphones and other mobile devices rises — Cisco predicts a twenty-six-fold increase by 2015 — and major carriers only just beginning to roll out their expensive 4G networks, carriers are putting cost-effective solutions in place now to deal with the overflow. While AT&T is already using hotspots, T-Mobile is investigating the option for dense areas of usage.

Verizon, on the other hand, has no plans to set up hotzones, citing security and reliability issues. But the iPhone is due to arrive on the carrier’s roster this month, and with the anticipated increase in subscribers and data usage, it may just have to consider options like Wi-Fi when it comes to satisfying the growing consumer appetite for data.

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