Slicing the Mall Network – The Promising Case for Sponsored Data

BY MIKA SKARP

Remember back in the day when we used to have to actually plug our devices into the Internet?  So quaint. Yes, it was a pain in the butt, and yes, it hampered mobility (to say the least), but to this day it remains the best and most reliable connection you can get. Since the arrival of pervasive wireless networks, the dream of delivering a “fibre over the air” experience has been a dream yet unfulfilled, at least in any consistent, reliable way. Indeed, the wireless revolution has in the aggregate been something of a “two steps forward, one step back” pattern of progress. Though mobility suddenly became possible, reliable, consistent connectivity went out the window. But that’s all changing thanks to some very interesting Proofs of Concept (PoCs) leveraging vertical network slicing, including some to be unveiled in the next month at the TMForum in Singapore.

Until now, wireless connectivity has come to us either via free and open WiFi networks (generally embedded in other products or services like, say, a cup of coffee), or by way of very un-free, closed cellular networks based on a billing relationship with your carrier. Though WiFi enjoys 75% of the market, it delivers a vastly poorer user experience than home WiFi, wireline or cellular connectivity and is much less reliable. And because it represents a one-off network installation, it has become more expensive to maintain. Still, though it’s at times difficult to use and at its best the least reliable, its net zero, free usage, and unlimited time and data model make it the “go to” for most people when available. Thus it has already validated its customer appeal.

Enter free, sponsored data cellular service. At the upcoming TMForum Live! Asia  2017 In Singapore as a part of the Catalyst Project, a clutch of companies will be showcasing the next phase in mobile internet access and the ability the to buy and sell capacity on an LTE network in a similar way to WiFi network connectivity. This would allow malls or other high traffic commercial areas to co-opt and offer cellular service to their customers that would be just as free as WiFi but with a vastly better user experience.

Malls are a great test case for this for two reasons: First, malls generally have excellent cellular coverage, designed to serve a large number of visitors and even have dedicated infrastructure indoors.  Secondly, because modern cellular basestations have a fibre backhaul, connection speeds are significantly faster and come at a much reduced cost compared to a typical backhaul used for mall WiFi networks. At its best, a WiFi air interface might offer 1 Gbps transport which is still slow comparatively. And because connectivity would be offered via a unified, single network, the infrastructure would cost much less than delivering and maintaining WiFi throughout. Built around the concept of Vertical Network Slicing, this becomes a perfect use case for high-value, sponsored data services precisely at the point of sale. Most importantly however, the service would be like no WiFi user experience we’ve seen requiring zero user intervention and dramatically improved performance.

The third big advantage for malls is that they all generally have an app or apps used for product and service promotions. By leveraging an Application-Aware Network Slicing model, the mall app can easily act as the trigger for mall network slices that provide sponsored data connectivity services the very moment the customer walks into the mall.  This would be very easy to implement and impose much less cost and friction than a traditional WiFi connection.

Challenges
While the basic building blocks are in place, there are some challenges. First is the fact that in every region, country or city there is more than one mobile operator. So how to ensure that Sponsored Data services remain unified and uniform in the mall use case? In response, the Catalyst Project has developed the sponsored data concept as an exchange, such that it will provide a single interface for all mall applications to request mall-based slices. The exchange would then allow users to be connected to their choice of one of any number of several cellular networks. From an economic perspective, buying capacity from a single source that may involve multiple carriers, makes it much easier for the mall to deploy and manage.

Certainly, the advantages are many and compelling. Cellular operators will now begin to generate new revenues from users that were previously on WiFi connections. Hand in glove, those users will suddenly enjoy a vastly better experience with a faster, more stable connections than WiFi could ever offer. Meanwhile, the host malls win the opportunity to build out sponsored data programs to support their shops and vendors while saving bundles on longer having to support and expand WiFi networks. The Result? A true Win-Win-Win.

If you would like to find out more, and what Cloudstreet’s Application-Aware Network Slicing model can bring to this new opportunity, we’d love to hear from you. If you are planning to attend the TM Forum Live, we look forward to seeing you in Singapore in December.