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Wi-Fi vs. Wireless: Who Cares?

2:10 PM -- Devicescape Software Inc. 's third-quarter Wi-Fi report, released on Tuesday, confirms what most wireless operators are quickly learning -- consumers love Wi-Fi, and they've come to expect it as part of their wireless service. In fact, some can't tell it apart.

So the backlash, if Wi-Fi stops being free, could be severe. (See Wave Goodbye to Free Wi-Fi and Can Towerstream Make $$ With Free Wi-Fi?)

Among the offload vendor's 1,040 members, 82 percent said Wi-Fi is very important for smartphone and tablet use, and 88 percent thought it was superior to wireless for rich media services like video. What's more, 83 percent expect wireless operators to provide them with a Wi-Fi network as part of their bundle, and that's not necessarily because they are upset about data caps. More than 26 percent said they didn't know their service provider was capping data. (See Verizon Sheds a Tier for Unlimited Data, AT&T Intros Mobile Data Caps, T-Mobile Revamps Wireless Pricing and The 4G Dichotomy .)

Nearly 90 percent of Devicescape's tech-savvy respondents knew when they were on Wi-Fi versus cellular, but that may not be indicative of the entire population. Last night I was reading a consumer magazine Real Simple, that had a chart detailing what data service consumers should sign up for (they recommended Verizon Wireless ), and among the misguided assertions the article made was that AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) offers free, unlimited access to its network at hot spots around the country.

AT&T does have an extensive and free Wi-Fi network, but it's certainly not the same as its GSM one. I think this speaks to consumers' view of Wi-Fi. They see it as a part of a wireless service now. Even if they get the difference, they don't care. It's inextricably linked and something they expect, not as a bonus.

Most wireless operators agree that they haven't seen any Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq: NFLX)-like backlash to capping data plans, because it affects such a small portion of the heaviest-data users. But, that clearly won't be the case if free Wi-Fi is revoked.

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Reporter, Light Reading Mobile

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kaps 12/5/2012 | 5:28:03 PM
re: Wi-Fi vs. Wireless: Who Cares?

Um, Wi-Fi is being used today to provide service to stadiums much bigger than 10,000 capacity. See AT&T Park, where they use a blend of Wi-Fi, DAS and cellular. But Wi-Fi is the key since it allows much bigger/faster data speeds and uses unlicensed spectrum so you can put in hundreds of APs.


20 cellular-only base stations in a stadium just isn't enough anymore. Ask any stadium operator. They are all turning to Wi-Fi in some degree.

kaps 12/5/2012 | 5:28:03 PM
re: Wi-Fi vs. Wireless: Who Cares?

Um, Wi-Fi is being used today to provide service to stadiums much bigger than 10,000 capacity. See AT&T Park, where they use a blend of Wi-Fi, DAS and cellular. But Wi-Fi is the key since it allows much bigger/faster data speeds and uses unlicensed spectrum so you can put in hundreds of APs.


20 cellular-only base stations in a stadium just isn't enough anymore. Ask any stadium operator. They are all turning to Wi-Fi in some degree.

rebecca_stone 12/5/2012 | 4:48:16 PM
re: Wi-Fi vs. Wireless: Who Cares?

As a self-professed techie, it always surprises me to read articles like this. I think "How can you NOT know the difference??" but of course that's only because I understand what those difference are. Do you have a direct link to the original Real Simple article, Sarah? I would love to read their descriptions.

OpEd 12/5/2012 | 4:48:15 PM
re: Wi-Fi vs. Wireless: Who Cares?

Actually, I am surprised this has not been covered before.  Mobile Internet users don't care what network they're connect to - until it doesn't work very well, then they know for sure! 


The smart operators will use Wi-Fi to augment their cellular services where the density of users is high or signal strenght is low.  Locations such as in stadiums or in buldings come to mind. Operators will shift users automatically as and when the demand or signal strength requires it. When they do go this route, it is unlikely users will see an additional charge from the operators since the strategy is one they've undertaken to ensure decent service or coverage. 


The other benefit end users will get from Operator Wi-Fi is some measure of service quality which is not something you necessarily get today (been in any busy hotels lately?). If operators will move users to a different wireless access network they will want to ensure the service is decent or they might as well leave you on their own over taxed network. 


Honestly, the sooner mobile operators really embrace their subsribers' love of Wi-Fi to supplement their own service offering, the better our experiences will be.

kaps 12/5/2012 | 4:48:15 PM
re: Wi-Fi vs. Wireless: Who Cares?

It's pretty clear from the data caps for cellular service that the future of big-data downloads are going to come through Wi-Fi. The question is, which provider will be first (or best) at blending Wi-Fi and cellular so that you are just "online" and your device tells you when it's optimal to use lots of data and when it's not?


Of course to get there we would first need a lot more clarity from cellular providers on where and how well their networks actually work... and how much it is costing you to download that movie or play Angry Birds on the web. At the gas station I go to they have this thing called a "meter." The difference in that industry is that regulations are in place to let me know exactly how much I am paying for each drop of gas. In the U.S., similar regulations for telecom providers are a long ways off.

kaps 12/5/2012 | 4:48:15 PM
re: Wi-Fi vs. Wireless: Who Cares?

It's pretty clear from the data caps for cellular service that the future of big-data downloads are going to come through Wi-Fi. The question is, which provider will be first (or best) at blending Wi-Fi and cellular so that you are just "online" and your device tells you when it's optimal to use lots of data and when it's not?


Of course to get there we would first need a lot more clarity from cellular providers on where and how well their networks actually work... and how much it is costing you to download that movie or play Angry Birds on the web. At the gas station I go to they have this thing called a "meter." The difference in that industry is that regulations are in place to let me know exactly how much I am paying for each drop of gas. In the U.S., similar regulations for telecom providers are a long ways off.

sarahthomas1011 12/5/2012 | 4:48:15 PM
re: Wi-Fi vs. Wireless: Who Cares?

I agree. The article was in the print edition, and I think only online to subscribers. RS may have meant to imply "WiFi" in its description of the hotspots, but it certainly wasn't delineated. The article, on page 212, also said there's no way to quantify how many megabytes or gigabytes it takes to do things like read email or stream a movie, called Sprint's network the fastest around and T-Mobile the slowest. It's always interesting to see how things like this are classified in mainstream pubs.

shygye75 12/5/2012 | 4:48:14 PM
re: Wi-Fi vs. Wireless: Who Cares?

As you point out, Wi-Fi has its own very real capacity limitations. It's working (more or less) now as an offload option. But two things to keep in mind here: (1) somebody's paying to provide Wi-Fi connectivity, which means it isn't really "free" and (2) once their networks catch up to demand, why would operators want to offload traffic to a free or very low cost option when they can get more money otherwise?

jepovic 12/5/2012 | 4:48:11 PM
re: Wi-Fi vs. Wireless: Who Cares?

"The smart operators will use Wi-Fi to augment their cellular services where the density of users is high or signal strenght is low.  Locations such as in stadiums or in buldings come to mind. Operators will shift users automatically as and when the demand or signal strength requires it. "


You can't deliver WiFi to 10,000 users in a stadium - it would collapse. Wireless/LTE, on the other hand, is designed for that. Just put 20 base stations in the stadium, or upgrade the ones already installed, and you're good to go. There's no reason why WiFI would be cheaper. For companies without a spectrum license, Wifi makes sense, but for wireless operators it's just messy and expensive.


jepovic 12/5/2012 | 4:48:11 PM
re: Wi-Fi vs. Wireless: Who Cares?

I disagree completely. There is no fundamental reason why Wifi should be cheaper to deliver. At the moment, WiFi is ahead in terms of deployment in some hot locations, and it has the major advantage of being subsidized be e.g. cafe owners.


That, however, has very little to do with the long-term production costs. LTE is from the start built for being easily managed in massive deployments. It will get at least the same volumes as Wifi, once it becomes an integral part of handsets (which might take a couple of years). The roaming with 3G and 2G is seamless. And what prevents say AT&T from letting Starbucks subsidize access to LTE in their cafés? Especially corporations might find it easier to let AT&T run a dedicated LTE network in their premises, rather than managing a WLAN network - just like fixed line phones are being scrapped for managed wireless services.


Carriers will avoid WLAN in their own networks since it is more cumbersome to manage both for them and their users. The "offload" concept is silly from their point of view since there is the same need for access pipes, base stations, and agreements with property owners. For cafes and airports, WLAN will still be a way to offer internet access to their customers. As the prices for LTE/wireless drops, WLAN will become less interesting.

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