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Is WiFi the New It Network?

Sarah Thomas
12/30/2013
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WiFi is no longer the pitch hitter for when cellular isn't doing its job. In fact, several startups are banking on it being the preferred network for enough people to build a business on.

Republic Wireless and Scratch Wireless are two of those companies. Both are wholesaling Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S)'s 3G and 4G networks, but relying on WiFi as the primary network to keep costs low -- or non-existent -- for their customers. (See Top 10 Carrier WiFi Movers & Shakers.)

I spoke with both companies, as well as in Devicescape Software Inc. , which lends its network of WiFi access points to Republic, to learn how they are making a business out of unlicensed spectrum and overcoming its shortfalls. You can find the story here in our Prime Reading features section. (See Why WiFi-First Works for Wireless.)

As someone who uses my phone on the train, buses, in cabs, and even while walking (sorry!), the idea of relying on WiFi only isn't appealing or even realistic. But, there's a large percentage of the population who use their devices only at home and in the office, for the most part. Combine that with the substantial cost savings, and a WiFi-first service should appeal to a lot of people. I think it's especially well suited for the younger users that want to jump on a family plan. The mall has hotspots, right?

I've been playing around with Scratch Wireless' Motorola Photon Q, and the service works as advertised. It's not a seamless experience: if you're on a call over WiFi, it drops when you leave the reach of the signal. But, Scratch executives tell me it's not supposed to be -- it's designed to be completely free, so the user selects when they want to use cellular and should never be surprised with a charge from the phone handing off without their knowledge.

Republic Wireless is different in that its customers tend to hop on cellular more, so there is a handoff process for voice calls that should be seamless for them. (See Republic Wireless Revamps Its WiFi Handoff.)

WiFi is still far from perfect. Users get tossed on to broken or overloaded networks. The selection process is often far from smooth. And, while it's many places, it's not everywhere yet. That said, if you're buying service from one of these MVNOs, you probably know -- and accept -- these limitations. It's still too early to know how many of these people are out there, but this will be an interesting industry segment to watch as WiFi continues to improve in terms of ubiquity, reliability, and quality.

Check out the story in the Prime Reading section of the site, and let us know what you think. Is WiFi a viable alternative to cellular service for you? Should the wireless operators be worried about this new crop of startups claiming it will be?

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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Carol Wilson
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Carol Wilson,
User Rank: Blogger
12/30/2013 | 9:56:05 AM
Lost in the WiFi universe
Speaking for the dinosaurs of the world, WiFi is essential for connecting laptops, in particular, but also tablets. I don't think WiFi-only is great for phones but for other connected devices, it has become the go-to network. 
DOShea
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DOShea,
User Rank: Blogger
12/30/2013 | 10:30:17 AM
Re: Lost in the WiFi universe
I too am a dinosaur and would have never thought WiFi could be seriously considered as a full service network, but I think we're seeing the case for even Wi-Fi phone use starting to develop. I bet that becomes a lot more viable in the next few years.
derac7020
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derac7020,
User Rank: Lightning
12/30/2013 | 10:37:34 AM
Re: Lost in the WiFi universe
WiFi is ok if you are stationary.   If you are on the move having WiFi enabled on the phone just makes things worse.   Plus its a battery eater [at least on my iPhone].   I don't have WiFi enabled most of the time because of it.
brookseven
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brookseven,
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/30/2013 | 11:00:32 AM
Re: Lost in the WiFi universe
As I have posted here before, I use T-Mobile's WiFi calling feature on a regular basis.  I concur that WiFi is not a mobile network and what I have done is set myself up to "prefer" the cell network for calls.  There are spots where my cell coverage is spotty (particularly at some Starbucks), but I have WiFi so still have call capability.

I also use the reverse.  I have a WiFi only tablet and tether it to my phone when I am outside of WiFi coverage.

I think that the capabilities are complementary and I like the ability to use either where appropriate.

seven

 
Sarah Thomas
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Sarah Thomas,
User Rank: Blogger
12/30/2013 | 11:26:53 AM
Re: Lost in the WiFi universe
Draining battery life used to be a big WiFi issue, but my understanding is that it wasn't so bad anymore -- at least not in my experience. That would be a limiting factor though to have the phone always searching for a network and draining the battery.
Sarah Thomas
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Sarah Thomas,
User Rank: Blogger
12/30/2013 | 11:28:03 AM
Re: Lost in the WiFi universe
Agreed, seven. It's the combination of networks that is most powerful. I thought the call quality over WiFi on the Scratch phone was pretty good, but you just can't take a call and go for a walk. Probably not a big deal for most people.
RitchBlasi
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RitchBlasi,
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/30/2013 | 12:38:56 PM
Re: Lost in the WiFi universe
Good points by everyone - and for those who know me, I AM the dinosaur of this group, starting out in telecom in 1972.  :-)

Another point to realize is that as VoLTE begins to roll out from carriers, Wi-Fi integration for voice and data will be invisible to customers and pricing for all-IP networks will be far different than what we have today.  This is the long term outlook for Wi-Fi offload and adding small cells into networks.  The agnostic air-interface network is what everyone is moving toward, especially with the finite spectrum available and growth of bandwidth-intensive services.

As I constantly argued with a friend of mine, ubiquity of cell networks is obviously the benefit for voice, but there are some VoIP apps that have good HD sound quality.  But, as the definitive T-Rex, give me cellular.

 

 
MordyK
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MordyK,
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/30/2013 | 12:58:03 PM
Re: Lost in the WiFi universe
These models that separate the home and office use from the larger cellular networks are interesting. France's FREE has taken a different route in that they provide a femtocell for homes and offices and when outside the phone roams on a macro network provided by a carrier, providing best of both worlds.
Sarah Thomas
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Sarah Thomas,
User Rank: Blogger
12/30/2013 | 1:21:34 PM
Re: Lost in the WiFi universe
Great point -- Free will be a really interesting one to watch -- similar concept, but making the broadband residential gateway the primary service. 
Sarah Thomas
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Sarah Thomas,
User Rank: Blogger
12/30/2013 | 1:23:08 PM
Re: Lost in the WiFi universe
Do you think VoLTE will change the pricing dynamics much? I haven't heard operators talk too much about that, probably because we're still a ways away from having VoLTE-only handsets.
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