Why Isn’t Wi-Fi Better?

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 (s 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 (s goog) 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.