Mention "hotspot" and the vision of millions of dollars tossed into a furnace often comes to mind. The early days of public-access Wi-Fi, deployments were another stunning example of the truth behind Geoffrey Moore's thesis in Crossing the Chasm: It always takes time for paradigm shifts to find their center, and great advances usually begin with a misstep or two.
Such, then, was the case with public access Wi-Fi. Originally conceived of by ISPs as the next gold rush, and by politicians as a way to offer broadband service to everyone for free, the reality left both of these constituencies with empty pockets and some splainin' to do. But cellular carriers quietly (or not, as has been the interesting case with T-Mobile and a few others) realized the true potential of Wi-Fi hotspots: cellular offload. The ugly truth of wide-area broadband wireless access is that there simply isn't--and won't be--sufficient bandwidth for all those cool applications we want to use if we rely upon 3G and even 4G alone.
As I've said before, then, the future of mobile broadband is necessarily and inextricably tied to Wi-Fi. The carriers are selling us a vision of do-anything mobile access that is the equivalent of landline services, but the carriers have now realized, as is evidenced by the end of unlimited wireless data plans, that they simply do not have the bandwidth required to make this vision (or sales pitch) a reality. Wi-Fi thus becomes the only alternative, and it's a relatively easy path--especially in key locales with high population density and consequentially high demand, Wi-Fi really can (unlike 3G and likely 4G once the load builds over time) provide a good approximation of landline services and can do so at a relatively (really, very) low cost. Wonder why the carriers have been quietly including Wi-Fi, which so many have assumed is the natural enemy of broadband wireless WAN services, in many of their handsets, including essentially all smartphones? Now you know.
The big problem, apart from realizing the complementary nature of cellular and Wi-Fi, has been in transparently integrating Wi-Fi into a carrier's service offering. While dynamic handoff of voice and even data between the two domains is in a chasm all its own at the moment (but will, I believe, be making a return), Cisco is quietly leading the charge to otherwise enable transparency between the WLAN and WWAN domains with an initiative they call Hotspot 2.0. This effort has a number of elements, but is centered on making the authentication process for Wi-Fi as transparent as it is for cellular--in other word, unplug and play.
A wide range of subscriber devices, of course, means a potentially wide range of solutions, but the Hotspot 2.0 effort includes a broad base of constituents and technologies: 802.11u (interworking with external networks), 802.1x, EAP-based authentication, the Wi-Fi Alliance, the Wireless Broadband Alliance (which is leading the interoperability testing effort), and more--this isn't about proprietary Cisco-only technology. Instead, Cisco is pointing the way to the transparency required if Wi-Fi is really going to dig cellular out of its capacity hole. There's more on the plate here, including network selection criteria and secure online sign-up, but you get the idea: This is a big, cross-industry effort with far-reaching benefits. And it really can't happen soon enough.
Cellular carriers will require a strong position in Wi-Fi to avoid disappointing their customers. Cisco's leadership here will, I believe, ultimately make the vision of mobile broadband we all seek--easy to use, transparent, and robust--a reality.
Craig Mathias is a Principal with Farpoint Group, a wireless and mobile advisory firm based in Ashland, MA. Craig is an internationally recognized expert on wireless communications and mobile computing technologies. He is a well-known industry analyst and frequent speaker at industry conferences and trade shows.