According to a new report from Mobile Experts, the carrier Wi-Fi market is expected to reach $4 billion by 2018. This growth will stem from the rapid adoption of IEEE 802.11ac technology by operators, which will drive 5-GHz radios in handsets. From there, mobile data will be quickly offloaded onto Wi-Fi. This trend is creating a need for interoperability within mobile networks or heterogeneous networks (HetNets.)

In terms of cost per bit delivered, Wi-Fi is cheaper than LTE. Mobile operators are therefore investing heavily in this technology, which is leading to various projects combining small cells and Wi-Fi. Among the results are complex combinations in distributed-antenna-system (DAS) networks combining radio nodes and core networks.

The report, “Carrier Wi-Fi Study,” breaks down the expected evolution of the carrier Wi-Fi market into four phases. Phase 0 shows little connection between Wi-Fi and mobile networks. Phase 1 is where the next-generation hotspot, Hotspot 2.0, comes into play and Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) authentication becomes a standard feature. Phase 2 improves billing, policy, and the interoperability of the networks. Finally, Phase 3 introduces an advanced network intelligence to optimize multiple air-interface modes based on location, user status, network conditions, and application.

Five-year forecasts also are included in the report for access points, the evolution of cloud controllers, chipset trends, authentication software, the adoption of multiband Wi-Fi, and market shares for each segment.