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Wi-Fi vs. 4G: Is There Really a Debate?

Kaps Korner
Kaps Korner
Kaps Korner
7/16/2012
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6:00 AM -- Call it the metaphor meeting the point break. With last year's installation of Wi-Fi service that covered Venice Beach in Southern California, Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) brought Web surfing to the home of the real thing -- perhaps heralding the future of wireless communications, where Wi-Fi would be everywhere, including the beach.

With mesh-network technology and solar-powered access points mounted on lifeguard stands, Time Warner Cable's SoCal beach infrastructure is just part of what some see as the "network of the future" -- a collection of Wi-Fi clouds that will deliver faster, better and cheaper wireless services, with coverage broad enough to free us from our cellular overlords, no matter where we hang out. This new, big Wi-Fi network idea was one central thought that emerged during a recent one-day conference at Stanford University, where all kinds of smart people involved in the business of wireless contemplated how unlicensed spectrum was going to "expand the reach and decrease the cost of broadband."

One answer is that Wi-Fi will not just be something you turn to periodically, but will instead become the dominant way we connect to the Internet when mobile. Wi-Fi gear supporting the new 802.11ac protocol -- which promises Gigabit connection speeds -- is already heading to store shelves, meaning that your Starbucks experience is probably going to get a lot better sometime soon. But will it be good enough to make you drop your cellular contract? In this column and one to follow I'll consider why a super, independent Wi-Fi network makes sense, and then get cynical and reason that in the end it may be the big telcos and cablecos who end up owning most of the Wi-Fi infrastructure. But let's start with the basics on why Wi-Fi is going to win, no matter who brings you the service.

Some intelligent creatures like Brough Turner have been saying for quite some time now that the cellular infrastructure, especially here in the United States, simply isn't going to be able to handle the demand for wireless broadband services, which continues to grow explosively without a top end in sight. At the place where I spend most of my time these days, a website called Mobile Sports Report, we are seeing perhaps the extreme example of cellular overload, when tens of thousands of sports fans invade stadiums with their smartphones and can't understand why their devices can't connect. The big trend right now in the sports world is to put Wi-Fi into stadiums, so that fans can send and receive emails, photos, videos and more, ensuring that they keep coming to games and not staying home on the couch.

And while this might seem like a special situation, in reality it's just an early window on what is going to happen soon to many public spaces where a large number of folks gather, with devices in hand: The normal cellular infrastructure is going to get overwhelmed. Anyone who's been to a big conference, like CES, knows what I'm talking about. This already happens now. And it's not getting better anytime soon. The devices have outstripped the cellular networks, and the networks are never -- never -- going to catch up.

Though the next version of LTE will theoretically support download speeds much higher than today's, the real-world services will likely be hamstrung by the small amounts of wireless spectrum available for commercial use. In the 5GHz unlicensed band, however, there are huge chunks of spectrum available. And with the new 802.11ac protocol, Wi-Fi could conceivably support wireless download speeds into the hundreds of megabits per second. Which technology would you rather choose when it comes to supporting the demands of the future? Which will be the one with any hope of staying ahead?

"We're just seeing the tip of the iceberg, when it comes to the amount of [wireless] data that's going to be used," said Dave Fraser, CEO of Devicescape Software Inc. , a company that is taking unique advantage of the cellular crunch. Though it doesn't own or operate its own wireless network per se, Devicescape is already providing valuable cellular offload services to big carriers by linking public hot spots together in what it calls a "curated virtual network," where it vets and selects top-quality hot spots and then uses client software and other smarts to create a sort of wide-ranging service cloud that lets carriers redirect their customers' connections to a Devicescape Wi-Fi hot spot, alleviating cellular congestion. (See Mobile Internet Offload Grabs the Limelight and Startup Taps Devicescape for Wi-Fi-First Network.)

Speaking at the Stanford conference, Fraser said Devicescape's business has given him a unique observation point on what is happening with Wi-Fi: Basically, it's going in everywhere.

"It's a subtle but increasing revolution that's already underway," Fraser said. "We all know there's Wi-Fi at Starbucks, but who knew it was in Macy's, and Nordstrom's? Or that there's a great network at Home Depot?" According to Fraser there are 100 million access points that Devicescape knows how to connect to, and perhaps 8.5 million of what it calls "quality" hotspots that are designed intentionally for free use.

"Nobody really knew how much public Wi-Fi was out there," Fraser said.

It's tempting to look at those numbers and say yes -- the revolution is nigh! Let us all combine our small business, government and personal networks into a big, humongous Wi-Fi cloud, where service is free or cheap and we have massive group cookouts, barbecuing our food over fires fueled by our needless cellular phone bills.

Could that happen? Maybe. There's some hard work that needs to be done on several ends, mainly in the area of discovery and authentication -- people are going to want to know how to connect to this new cloud and what it's going to cost, and how good the connection is going to be. And then the providers of services, individuals and businesses whose "real" purpose probably isn't being a wireless service provider, are going to need to offer some kind of reliability guarantee if this super-network is going to be something people rely on. Plus, they'll have to have a pretty good back-end connection to the Internet to ensure decent capacity.

Hmm ... so the new network will need solid infrastructure, high-capacity backhaul, deep pockets for capital expenditures ... smarts and experience at customer billing and administration. Does this sound like any business you already know? Like the telcos ... or the cable company that put the wireless network on the beach? I'll discuss why they did that, and why they may be your Wi-Fi provider of the future, in Part 2.

Paul Kapustka is editor and founder of Mobile Sports Report, a new site dedicated to the intersection of mobile-social technologies and the sports industry.

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unbearable
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unbearable,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:27:53 PM
re: Wi-Fi vs. 4G: Is There Really a Debate?


While its nice to see the big cable companies rolling out community WiFi that far exceeds the performance levels availed in McDonalds, Starbucks, and other AT&T vendors, they will rescind it soon enough.


Despite rolling out 1000+ access points, their signals don't carry far, and the login/authentication process is a joke.


If they want anyone to take notice and use it, more coverage is needed, with auto-login capability, and it needs to be available to non-cable-subscribers.  


$50/month for intermittent WiFi access is a joke - Boingo charges $10/month.


 


4G, or whatever you and the carriers want to call it, will win out, because it works everywhere.   The only question is the pricing models that people will accept.  Right now, the punitive overage model is being re-adopted, we'll have to wait for a disruptive carrier to offer something more acceptable.


 

kaps
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kaps,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:27:52 PM
re: Wi-Fi vs. 4G: Is There Really a Debate?


Unbearable, I would believe your argument if only the last part could ever come true: waiting for "a disruptive carrier to offer someting more acceptable." That's just not going to happen, at least not in the cellular manner, anytime soon, because of spectrum.


You can't get away from the physics of needing lots of spectrum to offer lots of bandwidth. The problem with cellular right now (mainly in the US market) is that there simply isn't enough spectrum that is usable for wireless data to allow for the incumbents, much less a new "disruptive" entrant to make any headway. Cases in point -- Clearwire, LightSquared. Clearwire is maintaining a business, but it's far from a winning recipe yet. And LightSquared never got off the ground. So -- where exactly will your disruptive carrier come from? I don't see it happening, since there really isn't any spectrum out there for a cellular play.


So -- the opportunity falls to the unlicensed bands, and the idea that most mobile use is nomadic and not mobile, meaning you are not at home but at a coffee shop, hotel, restaurant, classroom, etc. Where Wi-Fi can reach you. We will always need some kind of cellular connection for calls and true mobility... but the balance of data is going to go to Wi-Fi and unlicensed bands. Just a question of who provides it.

kaps
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kaps,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:27:52 PM
re: Wi-Fi vs. 4G: Is There Really a Debate?


Unbearable, I would believe your argument if only the last part could ever come true: waiting for "a disruptive carrier to offer someting more acceptable." That's just not going to happen, at least not in the cellular manner, anytime soon, because of spectrum.


You can't get away from the physics of needing lots of spectrum to offer lots of bandwidth. The problem with cellular right now (mainly in the US market) is that there simply isn't enough spectrum that is usable for wireless data to allow for the incumbents, much less a new "disruptive" entrant to make any headway. Cases in point -- Clearwire, LightSquared. Clearwire is maintaining a business, but it's far from a winning recipe yet. And LightSquared never got off the ground. So -- where exactly will your disruptive carrier come from? I don't see it happening, since there really isn't any spectrum out there for a cellular play.


So -- the opportunity falls to the unlicensed bands, and the idea that most mobile use is nomadic and not mobile, meaning you are not at home but at a coffee shop, hotel, restaurant, classroom, etc. Where Wi-Fi can reach you. We will always need some kind of cellular connection for calls and true mobility... but the balance of data is going to go to Wi-Fi and unlicensed bands. Just a question of who provides it.

Flook
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Flook,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:27:52 PM
re: Wi-Fi vs. 4G: Is There Really a Debate?


Although wireless/4G some day might, as you say, replace  FTTH and other connection technologies, that won't happen if mobile operators continue to offer the kinds of tiered data plans they now have. They would really have to raise the ceiling on data caps.

davis74037
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davis74037,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:27:52 PM
re: Wi-Fi vs. 4G: Is There Really a Debate?

Wireless Beach Access has already accomplished what Time Warner did for a faction of the cost. WBA is a small CLEC located in Delaware that has already WI-FIed Rehoboth Beach. They use DSL connections for backhaul for each of their hotspots creating a Metro Zone hotspot.  You can use your WI-FI enabled device almost anywhere in the town, boardwalk or beach.  Their yearly cost is 149.00 a year, if you rent your home renters are given separate usernames to access the network during their stay . The network allows two devices to connect simultaneously. One username allows for you to roam throughout the network. It is a Great deal for a Great price!

 However, I agree it is only a matter of time before wireless Internet replaces all data connections including FTTH.

kaps
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kaps,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:27:51 PM
re: Wi-Fi vs. 4G: Is There Really a Debate?


If there ever was a horse destined to remain stuck in the gate, that's it.

kaps
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kaps,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:27:51 PM
re: Wi-Fi vs. 4G: Is There Really a Debate?


If there ever was a horse destined to remain stuck in the gate, that's it.

joset01
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joset01,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:27:51 PM
re: Wi-Fi vs. 4G: Is There Really a Debate?


Don't think much of FreedomPop then, eh, Kaps? *giggle*

Matt Massey
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Matt Massey,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:27:47 PM
re: Wi-Fi vs. 4G: Is There Really a Debate?


Kaps,

As Director of Marketing for Edgewater Wireless (www.edgewaterwireless.com ) I can tell you, based on conversations I've had with some, that the path forward for major carriers and service providers is not a clear one.  Largely due to the lack of a monetization strategy for WiFi services and the consumer expectation that WiFi should be free. So the challenge remains, how do they justify the expense/investment in implementing large scale WiFi infrastructure wihout a supporting business model.  

I agree with you that 802.11ac offers some impressive download speeds, unfortunately it's not the answer.  802.11ac provides awesome association rates at close proximity but falls off quickly at a distance.  Also, 802.11ac doesn't address the issues around adjacent channel interference that dominate the unlicensed spectrum with 802.11abgn WiFi networks today.  As more and more WiFi networks are installed, adjacent channel interference will become more prevelant and impact the user experience - 802.11 ac included.


Additionally, because of the inherent nature of single-channel APs the association rate of the slowest device dominates the association rates of all of the devices.  Now in order to address this, AP Vendors are using stacked radios, MIMO and software like Airtime fairness however these all reach a saturation point and downgrade or mitigate the user experience.

I like what Devicescape is doing, I had an opportunity to speak with them at length during CTIA and their concept of a crowdsourced wifi network is excellent. They'll eventually be bought by a global SP for a wheelbarrow or two of money but it's a very smart company.

Our company Edgewater Wireless is offering a different AP product leveraging our proprietary WiFi3 technology to address both the adjacent channel interference issue and traditional single-channel WiFi capacity issues with 3-channels on a single AP.  We're disruptive in the marketplace from a technology perspective which is why service providers and carriers are looking at our technology so closely now.

Cheers,


Matt 

Matt Massey
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Matt Massey,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:27:46 PM
re: Wi-Fi vs. 4G: Is There Really a Debate?


I hear you, I'm a marketer through and through!  


Simply my perspective on the market but the  growth of WiFi isn't happening in North America anywhere close to the rapid adoption taking place in Brazil, APAC and CALA - the growth in these regions is explosive.

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