Most technology vendors agree that multiple mobile networks create a lot of complexity for users trying to figure out how they should connect when Wi-Fi or 3G networks are available. Add WiMAX and LTE to the picture and things get even more complicated, according to Barbara Nelson, CTO of iPass.
Creating an easy user experience through seamless connectivity between networks and software can be done, but Nelson laid out several challenges to executing it. Most of them are related to business models rather than technical challenges, among them:
- Authentication Issues — Different networks decide if you can use their network based on different criteria. To access a Wi-Fi network you need a user name and password, but to get on a cellular network you need a SIM card, which is attached to a device. WiMAX certifies the device but then accepts a user name and password. Nelson believes associating connectivity with a user is ideal since users may own a great number of devices.
- Billing Model Issues — Users buy Wi-Fi connectivity based on a measure of time (such as a day pass) while cellular operators charge for access based on the number of megabytes of data a user downloads. For the user it may make sense to use a cellular network for checking email rather than paying for a Wi-Fi day pass, but it’s hard for a user to figure that out, especially since most users have no idea how to define a megabyte. Nelson also was frustrated by the variability in roaming charges when trying to get on 3G networks internationally.
- Policy Issues — Building a software client that can help users decide whether it’s best to choose a network with the lowest costs, fastest data rates or best signal strength for a task is hard. It requires the client to be able to figure out how strong a signal is and weigh that against how many users are on a network. For example a strong cellular signal is good, but if a lot of people are sharing that cell site, there’s too much congestion, which lowers the data throughput. So given a choice between that and weak Wi-Fi signal with faster data rates, a Wi-Fi network would be best. But the average user doesn’t want to think about this.
There are a host of issues that basically stem from trying to mesh the worlds of unlicensed spectrum dominated by Wi-Fi to the heavily controlled world of licensed spectrum owned by network operators. Nelson notes that these complications are keeping users who are worried about incurring costs or using the wrong network away from the web when they’re mobile. As she put it, “We’re building this global Internet, and users are scared to get on it.”
photo courtesy of iPass