By Claus Hetting, Wi-Fi NOW CEO & Chairman
South Africa’s Vast Networks has been operating a trial Wi-Fi offload service for the country’s largest MNO Vodacom for some months and the results are now irrefutable: When cellular subscribers are handed off to Wi-Fi data rates are up to several times faster than cellular, Vast Networks says.
How well does Passpoint-based Wi-Fi offload work in practice? If you ask Vast Networks of South Africa the answer is very clear: After several months of trialling a Wi-Fi offload service for South African MNO giant Vodacom, Vast’s venue Wi-Fi offload service delivers faster speeds than cellular – in some cases up to ten times faster, the company says.
“In most cases we deliver a much faster data service than cellular in the same location. This is a consequence of how we’ve built our Wi-Fi network and how we manage the offload service,” says Khetan Gajjar, CTO of Vast Networks. The trial is live at about a dozen venues representing a selection of venue types including malls and restaurants, Khetan Gajjar says.
MNOs set policies for offload – and save CAPEX
Offload trials of this type are rare because many operators fear that their hard-won subscribers would be forcibly handed off to poorly performing Wi-Fi with detrimental impact on the user’s perceived service quality. Vast says they avoid that problem altogether because operators – like MNO – can now set a threshold for when they allow handoff to Wi-Fi to occur.
“We of course want users to have the best possible experience when they’re on our Wi-Fi. Now our MNO clients can make sure that happens by setting a minimum data rate threshold as a policy. For example: A cellular subscriber is only handed off to Wi-Fi when the service is known to be at least 10 Mbps,” says CEO of Vast Networks, Grant Marais.
Wi-Fi offload services could be financially consequential for MNOs in that they provide for much-needed CAPEX spending relief. Wholesale Wi-Fi-based data services – such as those of Vast Networks – can be delivered at much lower cost than the carrier’s only alternative: Building more 3G or 4G capacity often in difficult locations such as deep indoors or where the density of users is high.
Serving international inbound roamers
In addition to offload Vast’s Wi-Fi network is designed to deliver Wi-Fi roaming services for example to tourists or business visitors. Thus far Vast has provided tens of thousands of AT&T subscribers with Wi-Fi while visiting South Africa from the US.
“Our architecture allows AT&T subscribers to auto-connect to our Wi-Fi – meaning they don’t have to do anything on their phones to get connected. And since we tunnel the traffic back to the US, there is no difference in the services they access at home or with us,” says Grant Marais.
Time for everyone to embrace Passpoint, Vast says
Marais also believes that any public Wi-Fi services would benefit immensely from adopting a similar architecture. “Imagine for example if Google Station chose to use Passpoint in India and then entered into offload agreements with all mobile carriers. The adoption rate of Wi-Fi at Indian rail stations would immediately rise to close to 100%,” Marais says.
Last year Vast Networks served more than 20 million Wi-Fi users. Vast today offers Wi-Fi services at a couple of thousand venues in South Africa with more than 30,000 APs under management. Their yearly growth rate in users is close to 30%, Vast says. Vast Networks won two Wi-Fi NOW Awards in 2017 and is owned 51% by Dimension Data and 49% by satellite TV provider MultiChoice.