Today, HPE Aruba announced its Aruba Air Pass cloud service that allows for a hand-off between cellular and Wi-Fi networks. The service is enabled by Passpoint, which is a standard created by the Wi-Fi Alliance. The idea is that a mobile operator customer can go into a building with Wi-Fi coverage and, without having to “log on” to the Wi-Fi, the user’s phone will automatically connect. Using Air Pass means that mobile operators won’t need to build a cellular infrastructure in these buildings for customers to continue with their phone calls.
For mobile customers to see the benefit of seamless roaming from the Air Pass service, mobile operators will need to engage in a relationship with the property owners of the building. While this seems like a lot of work, connecting to Air Pass will be far easier than it would be for a property owner to install a cellular network inside the building. Examples of in-building cellular that can operate either on licensed, shared or unlicensed spectrum is a Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) system or licensed small cells. Building owners or operators have to build new, in-building cellular if they want cellular coverage. Managed Service Providers, such as Federated Wireless, have begun selling a service to property owners where they will manage the cellular infrastructure for the owner.
Aruba has some competition for its service to allow Wi-Fi sharing to mobile operator customers. In February 2020, Cisco announced its Unified Domain Center as a means of sharing Wi-Fi coverage with mobile operators, as well, and claimed that it is at the proof of concept stage with operators. Also, Swedish software and services company, Aptilo, has created systems that allow SIM-based device users to roam onto Wi-Fi, as well. We applaud the efforts of Aruba, Cisco, Aptilo and many others who have built systems to allow device users to roam between cellular and Wi-Fi networks.
There has been a lot of excitement by mobile operators and cellular equipment suppliers about the 5G opportunity to expand to enterprises. In November 2019, for instance, Nokia discussed how enterprises are adopting its Private LTE systems to allow cellular coverage at customers such as utilities and shipping ports. We have been cautious on the idea that mobile operators will get lots of new revenue from providing cellular coverage to the enterprise; a year ago, we laid out our thoughts on the 5G Enterprise hype at the MWC19 show.
The implications of the emergence of services like Air Pass and the capabilities of Unified Domain Center is that Enterprise Wi-Fi coverage will be leveraged in the 5G era far more than all the hype about “5G” wiping out the need for Wi-Fi. However, we also feel that cellular systems will see growing popularity in certain enterprise verticals, as was evident at the MWC-Americas 2019 show.