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Summary:

We talk a lot about Wi-Fi offload as the next big thing for mobile operators, but a recent conversation with an AT&T executive put that into doubt. How can we make the reality match the perception of Wi-Fi as this fabulous place for offloading mobile traffic?

wi-fi-sign

We talk a lot about Wi-Fi offload as the next big thing for mobile operators, but a recent conversation with an AT&T executive put that into doubt. The executive noted that AT&T didn’t see Wi-Fi helping the nation’s No. 2 carrier offset congestion because in most cases people don’t use Wi-Fi unless they are sitting still in a hot-spot. And apparently, there are plenty of people still wandering around watching YouTube videos.

Sure this person was selling the AT&T and T-Mobile deal based on AT&T’s need for spectrum, but the statements also ran counter to what AT&T itself has said back when it launched the iPad. At the time, an executive with AT&T said that Ma Bell expected a “substantial” percent of usage to occur over Wi-Fi networks. I couldn’t get details on actual usage in the last few months from the executive I met recently, although AT&T loves to talk about Wi-Fi connections in laudatory press releases. But it started me thinking about the perception of Wi-Fi and the reality. How can we make the reality match the perception of Wi-Fi as this fabulous place for offloading mobile traffic?

Making Wi-Fi Mobile.

One of the problems with Wi-Fi is that it’s for fixed mobile access, meaning a person is sitting still. But it doesn’t have to be this way as several startups such as FON or Anyfi have shown. It is possible to create a Wi-Fi network that allows a user to remain on the Wi-Fi network, even when moving. Other good work on this comes from chip firms where engineers are discussing standards to enable seamless hopping from hot spot to hot spot or perhaps even a handoff between a cellular and Wi-Fi network. The bottom line, is that for Wi-Fi to be mobile, the device must hop from network to network and authenticate without the user being aware of it. The Wi-Fi Alliance is working on a standard and authentication with operators to make this happen, with a suggested standard to surface later this year and an actual standard some time in the first part of next year.

Look at the Cable Companies,

The next step after a way to hop seamlessly from network to network is to actually get hotspot owners to let that happen. The standards mentioned above will help, but folks should take a page from the cable guys that already do allow roaming on their networks. In New York City, the three cable providers share a Wi-Fi network, essentially turning the city into a giant hot spot for their customers. Plus, this week Deutsche Telekom signed a deal with iPass to create a carrier Wi-Fi market that essentially wholesale Wi-Fi access for carriers and enables them to allow their end-users to roam onto this combined network. Another option are services such as Boingo that folks can subscribe to and that offer apps to make hopping fairly consumer-friendly.

Muni Wi-Fi 2.0

Once Wi-Fi is everywhere, seamless and one can roam and can be mobile using Wi-Fi,the next step is to put it in more places. The AT&T executive pointed out that someone enjoying lunch in a public park likely can’t find a Wi-Fi network, so will surf on the cellular network. But more and more cities, shopping malls and other developments are adding Wi-Fi access as a lure to get consumers to hang around. Some of these take the form of public-private partnerships where a business development district might implement a network in partnership with a corporation located nearby, and some are just public networks. In three or four years, if the Wi-Fi Alliance, Intel or another large player can set up the infrastructure to make seamless roaming and authentication happen then having those networks in more places helps solve the final piece of the puzzle — finding networks everywhere.

There are plenty of other startups and efforts aimed at making Wi-Fi more usable and better, but it will likely never replace cellular when it comes to convenience. But I think these would be a start. What else might help?

Image courtesy Flickr user Adventures in Librarianship.

  1. IF the carriers didn’t charge customers for calls made over wi-fi. more people would enable wi-fi on their phones. The cost of operating a gateway from the internet to the PSTN is near zero for carriers, so there is no reason why making mobile calls over wi-fi on your phone should use plan minutes. I realize it’s hard for these execs to understand people don’t want to sign over their paychecks to them, but maybe one day they will realize that they are not loved by their customers, just like Kadaffi is not loved by Libyans.

    For data purposes, people don’t use wi-fi as much as they should because (I think) of the security reasons. You need to be very uninformed about computer security to access any site that requires a log-in over a public wi-fi network. I’ll turn on wi-fi on my phones and tablets at home or in my office, but the networks are secure there. Everywhere else I use my 3G/4G connection.

    I don’t know if ATT expects people to use wi-fi while traveling in cars; even with good network hopping technology, it’s not going to matter if you are traveling on a highway.

    ATT seems to want to be able to charge people as much as they can, while providing as little service as possible. Like, they want to charge $60+/month for 3G/4g service, put caps on it, and then encourage customers to use wi-fi (that other people provide, who might have to pay ATT for the local network’s internet connection) as much as possible. ATT doesn’t seem to realize that if they push people to use wi-fi by making their 4G service as useless as possible, they will provide incentive for wi-fi networks to evolve, and ultimately eat away at their business. Not that any ATT exec really cares about the long term sustainability of their company.

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  2. If wifi is a bonus offered by a business to attract costomers. (Starbucks for a good example) I don’t think they will be too quick to share their return for this service. Blanket coverage is, to me the only marketable option. Then why would you need cellular?

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  3. It’s not that people are moving around, it’s that the WiFi UX is terrible:

    http://smoothspan.wordpress.com/2011/05/14/the-real-problem-with-mobile-wifi-terrible-ux/

    Cheers,

    BW

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    1. Why were you even in a Starbucks, Bob? What a waste of good money.

      And I have not been in a hotel in which there was a separate charge for internet, WiFi or wired.

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    2. Nice post and good points. Have you tried the Boingo app? It tries to address some of the UX issues, even for non subscribers.

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  4. I agree with Bob.. the WiFi UX sux.. it`s terrible. Looking forward to see a new standard from the WI-FI Alliance and to the day I can find wifi networks everywhere!

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  5. Interestingly when WiFi was first specified and developed, it was supposed to be the next thing to replace GSM/UTMS (etc) cell networks. However, obvious issues about range, security and property ownership complications ended up resigning the technology to a home networking one.

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  6. Thanks for the mention Stacey. :)

    I think Bob is spot on; it’s the UX that needs to be improved. Wi-Fi works really well when you’re at home (and have WPA enabled) but in hotspots it just plain sucks. The fact that hotspots are used at all I think is testament to Wi-Fi’s strengths in other departments.

    You need AT LEAST this if you want a good mobile Wi-Fi UX:

    1. Automatic authentication. Enter credentials once, use everywhere. Extra credits for reusing credentials already in the device, e.g. SIM card.

    2. Encryption, and preferably with a trusted end-point. The Guardian recently illustrated the trusted end-point part of it (in the sense that over-the-air encryption would not have helped): http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/apr/25/wifi-security-flaw-smartphones-risk

    3. Quality coverage. Blanket coverage is great but not if it’s 80% crap that makes you want to turn your Wi-Fi off. Quality needs to be actively monitored and managed so that devices only connect (i.e. switch over from 3G) when Wi-Fi signal strength is good enough for a quality UX.

    We’ll hopefully have the first major ISP up and running with all of the above (and some more) this fall.

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    1. Lucian Armasu Saturday, May 14, 2011

      I completely agree with all your points. For Wi-Fi to eventually replace GSM/LTE it needs to be hassle-free for the user, connect automatically and have a longer range, but also be more battery efficient. Right now it drains the battery pretty fast, though LTE may be even worse right now.

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    2. Yep – that’s about right with a few others that are even more important:

      a) You need a “distributed” network approach, because achieving adequate coverage commercially by one vendor is near impossible. FON is closest to doing it right, but they require you to buy a box, which is a non-starter.

      1a) so consumer WiFi companies have to be incented to build in support for third party access through a central system.
      1b) consumers need to be assured it is 100% safe and get a strong incentive – better coverage everywhere else could be that.
      1c) a party needs to take on role of a central system – maybe iPass as Stacey mentions.

      2) forget about handoff in poor quality signal situations. Won’t work (too hard to measure what’s sufficient and not and how quickly to hand off). Need the new standard being pushed by QUALCOMM, Atilla, where the hand-off is implicit – a user is connected and using WiFi and 3G in parallel so as one gets better it just supplements and as one gets worse it just drops off.

      3) everything Bjorn says.

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  7. The user experience sucks because the people who roll out the networks don’t take into account who is using WiFi and how they are using it. Example: most city WiFi networks and WiFi in subways and train stations require you to log in all the time with a cumbersome username and password. In reality, most people want to quickly get on the WiFi network, check email and then go. The WiFi network in SF’s Muni stations suffers from this stupidity. By the time you are done entering these details, the train has arrived. By now most people logging onto outdoor WiFi and public transport WiFi networks use portable mobile devices like iPhones (to a lesser extent iPads), but not laptops. Yet, when you look at how the network interface is designed, it’s as if a bunch of people are sitting there using the WiFi network with a laptop or desktop. Another pet peeve: having to log on again and again when moving around in an enterprise or in an airport. Why can’t the network remember you? Heathrow Terminal 5 actually has a WiFi network (BT OpenZone) that remembers you as you move around. But this is the exception to the rule.

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    1. Esme, YES! I’m so glad folks are coming on and elaborating on all these issues. there are ways to fix it and it’s good to know who’s doing things well.

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  8. All this talking is vapourware, and you know it:
    “The Wi-Fi Alliance is working on a standard and authentication with operators to make this happen, with a suggested standard to surface later this year and an actual standard some time in the first part of next year.”

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    1. That isn’t my definition of vapourware.

      Maybe the word you mean is moot.

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  9. Will look forward too this.

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  10. After living abroad for the last two years (mainly europe) I think we’re a little spoiled in the US with wifi availability and where and when we expect it. In most major cities in Europe you have to pay for this – at starbucks, hotels, trainstations, airports, etc., and it ain’t cheap. I’ve paid up to $6.50/hr to use wifi at a number of public and private places…

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