Reconsidering your wi-fi relationship

Easy to access, ubiquitous wi-fi for devices may seem like a sure-fire success, but there are some complexities that will need to be ironed out before it can reduce our reliance on cellular mobile networks.

For all the smartphone users out there, here’s a pertinent question: do you think you use more data over wi-fi than you do over 3G or LTE?

My guess is the answer is probably going to be “yes”.

So does that mean we need to deploy more wi-fi hotspots than we should invest in LTE?

Here’s one school of thought as seen on Kevin Fitchard's new GigaOm blog article:

“If the idea is to build ubiquitous networks offering plentiful and cheap data, then carriers and governments should pursue the cheapest and most efficient technologies, which in most cases isn’t cellular infrastructure.” 

Fitchard was conveying the argument being put forward in a new paper about unlicensed spectrum (wi-fi) in which former Ofcom economist Richard Thanki suggests that the wireless industry and its regulators have got their priorities all wrong, and there should be more of a focus on wi-fi.

Personally, I only use wi-fi at home and at work, (but that’s about it), one of the main reasons for this being the fact that there’s poor wi-fi coverage almost everywhere I go to. And when I’m travelling abroad, the situation tends to be even more frustrating, with wi-fi only available about 10 per cent of the time. But on the other hand, wherever I am (with the exception of the underground parking lot in my building), there is 3G data connectivity.

So what would encourage me to change the balance of this relationship, and increase my wi-fi usage? More public hotspots for a start. But apparently I won’t have to wait too long for this to happen: according to a recent Wireless broadband Alliance (WBA) report highlighted by iTwire, we’re about to see a huge jump of 350 per cent (by 2015) in the global number of public wi-fi hotspots. The report also showed this trend is something that’s supported by operators, with 58 per cent of them - including 47 per cent of mobile operators - regarding wi-fi hotspots as either very important or crucial to their customers' experience. 

What’s driving this rapid push to wi-fi? According to the chair of the WBA and CEO of BT Chris Bruce, a key factor lies in the massive growth in global mobile data, with traffic expected to reach 16.84 million terabytes by 2014. Operators are planning to manage the impact of this demand on their resources primarily through new pricing strategies and... offloading customers onto wi-fi when necessary.

While Australian operators have typically shied away from wi-fi in the last few years, regardless as to whether they see it as an opportunity or a necessity; they’re now starting to move towards it in varying degrees. Take, for example, Optus, which provided free wi-fi at this year’s Australian Open in Melbourne.

One city already heading in a wi-fi direction is Perth in Western Australia – it is putting into action an election pledge made by Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi to provide free wi-fi in its Central Business District. The hope is that providing wi-fi will encourage visitors to stay longer in the city and spend more money.

There are also potential opportunities for service providers to support a wi-fi network on public transport, given that peak hour periods are a common time for 3G use. Principal analyst at Ovum, David Kennedy recently told Technology Spectator that it would be plausible for an operator to provide a seamless 3G/Wi-Fi handover and authentication service if they set up their own network on public transport. 

The wi-fi coverage I have right now is reasonable: as I said earlier, it’s the only data network I use when at home and in the office. And at other times – whether I’m commuting, attending meetings out of the office, in the doctor’s waiting room, or in the supermarket – I rely on the cellular network.

However, even if hotspot coverage improves to the vast extent predicted by WBA, I still don’t think the balance of my relationship with wi-fi and the cellular networks will change until other issues have been dealt with:

  • Signing on to wi-fi networks can be time consuming and difficult
  • Open wi-fi networks come with potential security risks
  • Wi-fi signals are sometimes too weak to offer good enough connectivity, or else you just can’t get into the internet once connected due to other technical reasons
  • Wi-fi breaks down at large conferences because there are too many people trying to connect to it, reducing usability to zero
  • When on the go, there’s no way to maintain a signal over wi-fi.

Solve these and that will certainly make me rethink about the way I use wi-fi.

Tsahi Levent-Levi is the Director of Business Solutions at Amdocs.

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