Wi-Fi®: A beautiful chaos – Part 2
September 09, 2014 by Kevin Fitchard, Gigaom
Kevin Fitchard, Gigaom tech reporter, gave a keynote address at the Wi-Fi Alliance® member meeting in Chicago in June. The following content is Part 2 of an abridged version of that speech. Part 1 can be read here.
Last month Gigaom ran a big feature series called ‘Reinventing the internet’, exploring how broadband technology, applications policy, and security were evolving – and should evolve – to connect the world in the 21st century.
I handled the wireless component of that series, and I slightly surprised myself by writing as much about unlicensed technologies like Wi-Fi as I wrote about traditional cellular networks.
Here were my conclusions: The mobile internet of the future isn’t going to be supplied by a single carrier, using a single wireless technology, on a single service plan. If we truly want to use mobile broadband the way we use fixed broadband, then our wireless signals will come from multiple sources, and one of those key sources will be Wi-Fi.
My colleague Stacey Higginbotham took that idea one step further when she wrote this headline last August “Who’s your new mobile carrier? How about Wi-Fi?”
Her argument was that Wi-Fi has become so key to connecting our mobile devices, that selecting the Wi-Fi networks available to you is far more important than what mobile carrier you choose. As an example, Republic Wireless, a mobile virtual network operator with a Wi-Fi First focus, was seeing 90 percent of its mobile traffic traverse Wi-Fi networks.
Of course, Republic is a small MVNO with a customer base committed to this kind of data offload model. If you talk to a more a traditional carrier, they’ll tell you this kind of model will never work for most people. Mobile networks use dedicated spectrum. Mobile networks are planned and managed.
Relying on Wi-Fi as your primary mobile internet connection would be inviting chaos. And they’re right. Wi-Fi is chaotic. As anyone who has ever been to big industry conference, where every exhibitor sets up their own network, knows this. The competition for the unlicensed bands’ limited capacity is fierce. Everyone has experienced connecting to a dead or overloaded hotspot and having to force your phone off the network. But anyone who has ever tried to connect to a 4G network during rush hour in downtown Chicago has experienced similar problems.
Yes, Wi-Fi can be chaos, but I would argue that it’s a beautiful chaos. Many of the most popular mobile applications we have today got their start and maintained their popularity because of Wi-Fi. If you ever streamed an HD movie to your tablet on Netflix, then you probably did it over Wi-Fi.
Wi-Fi hasn’t just been a source of tremendous capacity but also an incredible driver on innovation. Unlike cellular spectrum which is licensed and tightly controlled by the operators, the openness of the unlicensed bands allows anyone with a new idea to go for broke.
At Gigaom we write a lot about startups, and increasingly the networking startups I talk to are making Wi-Fi the centerpiece of their businesses. Open Garden is using Wi-Fi Direct and Bluetooth to build ad hoc messaging networks that bypass the internet entirely. M87 is trying to help carriers build faster and more resilient cellular networks by letting phones crowdsource their connections via Wi-Fi.
Triangulation of Wi-Fi signals is now creating a new market for indoor navigation and geofencing. Wi-Fi mesh networking is being used to circumvent government internet censorship and build community networks in the third world.
And though we traditionally think of mobile as the technology providing coverage, Wi-Fi is often supplying the last few meters of connectivity in places mobile can’t go. Just ask the polar researcher connecting his laptop to an Iridium satellite hotspot.
The wide area cellular network will always be crucial. It will supply the blanket coverage that makes the mobile internet truly mobile. And mobile technologies are only going to get better. They will deliver faster speeds. They will support billons more connections. And they will offer much more capacity for far cheaper than we have today.
But as the distinction between the home or office application and the mobile application continues to blur, I no longer think traditional mobile networks will be the broadband workhorses of the wireless web. Instead they’ll play the equally critical role of filling in the gaps between dense pockets of capacity supplied by Wi-Fi and technologies like it.
And just as mobile carriers will need to expand into new spectrum to build their 5G networks, Wi-Fi also needs room to grow. A lot of people outside of the Wi-Fi industry have come to that realization: the cable companies, Silicon Valley startups, big internet companies like Google and Microsoft.
I think the tech and consumer press needs to come to that realization too.
We in the media should be doing a lot more to push for more unlicensed airwaves. Wi-Fi has only been a fount of innovation so far. I think it’s now safe to assume that giving you guys more frequencies will allow that innovation to continue.
If you were to ask me to predict what Wi-Fi’s greatest impact will be, I wouldn’t say speed, capacity or anything technical. Admittedly Wi-Fi has pushed the bounds of wireless technology, but I think Wi-Fi’s greatest contribution will be cultural.
Forgive me if I sound overly philosophical here but I honestly believe Wi-Fi is changing the world’s attitudes about how broadband access should be delivered and how it should be shared. As many of you have been witnessing among you customers, there’s a huge trend among businesses to make Wi-Fi a free amenity to customers. We’re seeing a growing a number of consumers open up portions of home networks to the public or crowdsourced broadband services like Fon. Mobile data ISPs like Karma will sell you data plans you can access not just from your own mobile hotspot, but any other Karma customer’s hotspot.
And it’s not just over-idealistic startups that are embracing this idea. Big cable companies like Comcast and mobile carriers like Free Mobile are turning their customers Wi-Fi routers into nodes on gigantic hotspot networks.
Just as Wi-Fi flourished around the core concept of shared spectrum, it’s helping drive this new concept of a broadband commons. It’s divorcing our internet service from a specific mobile device or wireline connection. By taking advantage of all of the radios around us we turn a limited resource into a plentiful commodity. It can create a cheaper mobile internet and a far more efficient one.
That’s the beauty of Wi-Fi. It’s not just a technology. It’s a model for openness in technology. I think every aspect of the tech and communications industry can learn from it.
Kevin is a Senior Writer for Gigaom, covering mobile broadband, carriers and wireless infrastructure since 2011. He has been writing about wireless networks and technology for the past 13 years. His work has appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek, Business Insider and Windows IT Pro. Prior, Kevin was a Senior Editor at Telephony Magazine and Connected Planet Magazine. Kevin spent his early career at several small Texas newspapers.