Finding Greener Pastures for Wi-Fi Network Expansion

Most service providers are planning Wi-Fi networks. As a result, I spend a fair amount of time trying to convince companies – especially cable companies – that they can’t just add a few Wi-Fi hotspots where convenient and expect to recoup their investments. It takes a solid understanding of the company’s existing infrastructure and familiarity with both the carriers’ footprint and their users’ habits to deliver a winning business plan.

I’ve been on the receiving end of data dumps that managers don’t have time to read. Patterns disappear and the business plan muddies.

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This 2×2 chart provides a simple way to envision Wi-Fi network planning. Each site being considered can be evaluated by (a) how important it is, and (b) its ease of installation.

“Important” refers to the inherent value generated by a location, which is measured in a number of ways, including:

  • Advertising impressions
  • Hotspot passes purchased
  • Inbound roaming credits/fees
  • Monetized location-based services
  • Resulting retained customers
  • Sponsor reimbursements
  • “TV everywhere” usage

High traffic volume drives these outcomes; the number of users, both unique and repeat customers, and the nature of their use combine into the single best predictor of Wi-Fi network value.

“Easy” refers to the operator’s ability to deliver services, measured by:

  • Access to power, whether from the cable plant, a utility, or provided by the venue
  • Backhaul capability – does the service provider already have facilities present or planned? Does it have the opportunity to acquire facilities through unlicensed wireless or a strategic partner with resources? Does the facility already have ample, scalable connectivity?
  • Attachment rights – does the operator have the right to attach to cable strands or other fixtures in rights-of-way? Does the operator have political means to secure to public attachments that can yield access to street furniture or other public locations? Can the operator’s business team deliver commercial rights for outdoor and indoor attachments?

Going after box 1, both Easy and Important, is the low-hanging fruit and obvious to most planners. Traffic is heavy, and the “three legs of the stool” (power, backhaul, and attachment rights) all align. Box 1 can also be a trap; its early traction can lull operators into a false confidence that building powerful networks is a breeze.

Good strategic planning starts with the end in mind. For these networks, the end is capturing sufficient Wi-Fi traffic to build a permanent behavior, a habit where customers are reliant on the network for speed and value. This habit occurs when 10, 20, or 30%+ of the out-of-home traffic shifts to Wi-Fi. A spotty, box 1-only build rarely captures that volume.

Box 2, Difficult and Important, is the planners’ revenge. It requires a much longer runway than box 1. The sites in this box lack one or more of those three stool legs. Airports, malls, and convention centers are frequent examples of box 2 locations. These sites’ requirements can intimidate service providers, sending them rushing to box 3 to fill access point (AP) quotas. This is a mistake, because it robs the build-out of capturing traffic, slowing user habit-building. Network planners focused on building Wi-Fi habits among their customers begin box 2 simultaneously with box 1.

Box 3 – Easy but Trivial is the opportunists’ playground. It differs from box 1; traffic is dramatically lower. Where “ubiquity” or “millions of hot spots” are marketing message goals, box 3 provides welcome volume. Operators pursuing box 3 win with organic rollout opportunities. Installing “home as a hotspot” and small business Wi-Fi in the course of business-as-usual workflows underscore the Easy axis of this “Trivial but Easy” box.

The Difficult and Trivial category, box 4, is the toxic quadrant. This frequently is driven by anecdotes or mirror research. These locations – the boss’ dog park or a director’s country club course, for instance – have all the flaws (low traffic and missing stool legs) and none of the benefits. This is where capital and planning go to die.

This simple, intuitive framework enables assessing Wi-Fi network build opportunities. In my next post I’ll walk through back-of-the-envelope math to assess the value of a new user to the operators’ Wi-Fi network.

-Bryan Goldberg

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