Carrier WiFi

Is WiFi the New It Network?

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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