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How Smartphones Are Making Wi-Fi Hot Again

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As many of you know, I recently moved to a new neighborhood in San Francisco. The move came with its own share of ups and downs, but waiting for broadband was the most challenging for me. It took almost five days to get the connection hooked up, and while I was waiting, my Internet access came from a Sprint MiFi, arguably the most useful tool for a web worker.

But I quickly ran through my 5GB data transfer limit — thanks to watching Hulu and listening to Spotify, two services that have replaced television and radio in my life. My next best option was Free the Net SF, an open Wi-Fi network maintained in my neighborhood by San Francisco-based startup Meraki. It wasn’t the fastest, but it provided enough bandwidth for me to watch “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” The mesh wireless networking hardware maker has been a favorite of ours for years now — and it was the first time I really benefited from its Net SF experiment.

Since then, whenever I walk over for a coffee or want to sit in the park and catch up on my reading on my  iPhone, I hop on that network. I don’t use AT&T’s (s T) 3G network — I use my iPhone as an iPod. And so do others. Meraki recently conducted a wireless access census and found some amazing statistics.


This blog and I were here during the Wi-Fi boom, when the wireless networking technology was seen as a solution for world hunger. (OK, that was a joke.) It quickly went from being an in-home (and on-campus) technology to the cornerstone of municipal wireless efforts. By 2006, the hype cycle ended, and reality set in about the potential and economics of Wi-Fi. Many municipal Wi-Fi efforts started to stall, and companies such as EarthLink backed away from it.

And then smartphones happened. The current smartphone boom, led by Apple’s iPhone, has given Wi-Fi a much-needed boost, as Meraki data shows. First, some stats from the census that compared the devices that accessed Meraki access points in 2008 and 2009:

  • The number of Apple devices observed, including laptops, iPhones and iPods grew by an impressive 221 percent.
  • Apple now represents 32 percent vs. 14 percent in 2008 of all the devices seen by Meraki networks in North America.
  • The number of smartphones (handheld devices) has quadrupled over the past year, with RIM showing a gain of 419 percent.
  • The number of people using Intel-based devices declined 11 percent, which tells me that more people are using smartphones vs. laptops.


Now to be clear, Meraki has a big presence in the San Francisco Bay Area, which skews the usage patterns a little. But, as we have written in the past, Wi-Fi use has been going up across the U.S., as the data collected by AdMob shows. AdMob is a mobile advertising company. We also checked with enterprise Wi-Fi network provider iPass on the network usage, and a company spokesperson told us it had seen a 200 percent increase in enterprise smartphone use over its global Wi-Fi network from the first quarter to the second quarter of 2009. The U.S., UK and the Netherlands were the countries with the highest Wi-Fi growth, regardless of device, during that same period, according to iPass data.

The usage has grown as major 3G networks have choked under heavy mobile Internet use. There is no stopping smartphone sales, according to data collected by Infonetics Research, a market research company. (See chart.) With the growing availability of Google Android-based handsets, 2009 will prove to be a banner year for smartphones. (See a related research report from GigaOM Pro, “Google’s Mobile Strategy” (subscription required). We will also be discussing this topic as part of a free Research Roundtable Webinar on Aug. 27, 2009. Register here.)

In my opinion, the presence of PC-quality browsers, such as Safari, on smartphones and webkit-based browsers, as well as the growing popularity of social-networking services such as Twitter and Facebook as communication tools, have boosted the demand for wireless data. These tools demand data connectivity, and people want to check them while on the go. This spurt in usage has left the carriers that long saw themselves as Wi-Fi’s enemy coming around and embracing the insurgent technology.

AT&T’s $275 million acquisition of Wayport and the recent agreement between Verizon and Santa Monica, Calif., Wi-Fi aggregator Boingo Wireless are signs that despite the availability of faster 3G networks, the low-cost economics of the Wi-Fi ecosystem are alive and kicking.

Wi-Fi, which is based on a sliver of open wireless spectrum, is finally proving its disruptive qualities. The concurrent boom in demand for Wi-Fi-based connectivity shows that most networking technologies have to find a way to coexist in our increasingly bandwidth-hungry lives. As for me, I am enjoying the seamless Wi-Fi — in my apartment, my work and my home.

No wonder I don’t miss my 3G connection.

41 Responses to “How Smartphones Are Making Wi-Fi Hot Again”

  1. @Bensinkort: You may be right about the health effect, but how come we have heard little to none about it in the news? I smell a conspiracy theory in the making here, with hardly ANY facts to back up what you`re saying. Can you for example give us a link to the study? Would be an interesting read.

  2. About wireless networks; I think it`s disturbing that we dont hear more about the possible health effects that come as a result of wireless networks. In a recent study about wireless networks done in (if I recall correctly) the University of Oslo, Norway, the results were that a wireless network were 40 times as powerfull and equivalent (potential) harmfull compared to cell phones.

  3. This is a great indicator on consumer trend and equally as eye opening a condemnation of the telecos greed and profit for scarcity approach to limiting its customers. Who actually pay the bills. More money for fewer services or lessened capability is becoming the MO for business in America.

  4. Om
    I cant’ help but think you are being sarcastic with your 3G comment. Wi-Fi is great but not pervasive. Very often ‘free’ but “spotty” with regard to coverage, roaming, sign-on, security, VoIP, etc. But, I agree with your sentiment. If you have a CAP on your data consumption, Wi-Fi is great. If unlimited/Flat-rate smartphone contract with AT&T 3G , then technology usage is based on best-possible experience (by location).

    Overall – a good article with great stats. My 2 cents.


  5. i believe WiFi lost a lot of appeal in peoples minds early this decade when place like starbucks went from completely open free WiFi(of course paid for through coffee sales) to subscription based services with gimmicks for free limited usage. i am seeing more and more 3G USB dongles hanging out of computers in starbucks.

    for most consumers it is not about WiFi versus 3G. it is about only one thing. free internet!! five years ago it was seen in many peoples mind as fact that by now the United States would have a very basic(nothing too fast) internet connection available free of charges across the country. just like we benefit from free use of the sidewalks and street it would benefit society greatly to have a very basic internet connection available in all locations free of charge. the big telecoms could continue to sell services to the bandwidth hungry power users but give me perhaps 256 kbps free everywhere.

  6. AT&T’s 3G service in San Francisco is so over subscribed that truth in advertising should require changing the name of the device to the iPhone Edge.

    But seriously….These numbers are more an indictment of carrier’s 3G service than a sudden increase in demand for Wi-Fi. Best case carrier’s are using WiFi to mitigate the problem. We’ll see how they feel when and if they upgrade their 3G networks as promised and eventually migrate to 4G.

    • Anonymous

      While 4G will provide more throughput, still the spectrum currently available will not be sufficient for the data hungry applications like Video and Audio. So, I do expect the carriers imposing limits on the amount of data you can consume (especially on iPhones, etc.) as well as time based pricing just like they do now with their voice plans.

  7. Great summary of the contextual importance of WiFi, but let’s not overlook these facts:

    1. WiFi embedded on nearly 100% of laptops and netbooks sold.

    2. Mobile broadband service slow and spotty today versus WiFi.

    3. WiFi is very affordable, although limited geographically today.

    What will be most interesting is in a few years when we begin to see WiFi “white spaces” deployments which cover urban areas. This will likely be HIGHLY disruptive.

    My $.02,