Will Mobile Broadband Kill Wi-Fi?
With technologies like mobile WiMAX starting to emerge, some people are starting to ask whether there's a long-term future for public Wi-Fi.
The approval of the IEEE 802.16e standard for mobile wireless broadband raises many unanswered questions about the future of Wi-Fi.
About 90 percent of laptops are now delivered with built-in support for Wi-Fi wireless networks and the technology has been widely adopted both in enterprises and the home. In addition, the number of public Wi-Fi hotspots continues to grow.
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But will a mobile version of WiMAX and other wireless broadband technologies encroach on Wi-Fi's territory? After all, why bother with finding a Wi-Fi hotspot when mobile broadband gives you wireless access wherever you are? For that matter, will fixed wireless broadband eventually replace Wi-Fi in enterprises and home? And how do municipal wireless projects fit into the mobile access equation?
Those are the core questions in a debate that is spreading through the wireless and mobile industry.
Competitive, But Not a Replacement
Roy Albert, chief technology for access aggregator iPass, believes that, while technologies such as mobile WiMAX will be competitive with Wi-Fi, they won't replace hotspots. IPass recently celebrated growth of its public Wi-Fi network, which just passed the milestone of having 35,000 hotspots.
Albert believes mobile broadband is a bit late to the wireless party. Although mobile WiMAX backers point to early 2007 as a date when the technology will start being widely available, iPass considers 2009 a more realistic date.
“Between now and then, a significant number of mesh Wi-Fi networks will be deployed,” says Albert. From San Francisco to Philadelphia cities are turning to Wi-Fi for both emergency services and residents. Companies such as Cisco, Google and EarthLink are already involved.
“The broader question is if WiMAX will be able to compete economically due to the costs of acquiring spectrum and rights of way if metro area Wi-Fi is already established and fairly ubiquitous,” Albert claimed.
Cellcos Versus The Cities
Another angle to this discussion is that, since mobile broadband can be used with licensed portions of the spectrum, many believe cellular and other telecom carriers will use it as a supplement to their 3G cellular data networks. This approach would compete directly with municipalities employing unlicensed Wi-Fi.
Sprint Nextel, for instance, is testing both pre-certified mobile WiMAX and a competing technology called UMTS TDD, which already has been deployed in other parts of the world. Other telecom operators are committed to fixed WiMAX as well and it wouldn't be a huge stretch for them to move to mobile WiMAX. BellSouth, for example, has commercially deployed fixed WiMAX in Georgia and Florida, AT&T is launching trials in Atlanta and New Jersey and Verizon has also launched service is a handful of locales.
In other words, a competition could develop between the telecom industry and municipalities, not to mention the current crop of Wi-Fi hotspot vendors. That would benefit users, some experts say.
“This will result in both quality improvements and lower prices -- much like what happened in dial-up networks over time,” Albert said.
Eventually, as mobile broadband becomes just another available option, users won’t need to consciously decide which network technology is right for them. From the end-user’s perspective, laptops equipped with, for example, Wi-Fi, WiMAX, 3G and dial-up creates a ‘best available network’ experience, iPass' Albert said. That's a buzzphrase that iPass uses extensively as it tries to attract enterprise customers.
Jeff Orr, Proxim Wireless’ senior product marketing manager, agrees.
“Mobile WiMAX won’t kill Wi-Fi,” Orr predicted. Like Albert, Orr believes mobile WiMAX will be just another option, similar to how computers ship with 56K modems, Centrino Wi-Fi and Ethernet ports.