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