Some mobile service providers, including Scratch Wireless and Republic Wireless , actually build their mobile services on primary use of Wi-Fi connections, automatically defaulting to Wi-Fi for voice and Internet access whenever possible, and then switching to 3G only when Wi-Fi connections are not available.
As newer blocks of spectrum (5 GHz, 60 GHZ) are opened up for commercial use, the questions--and the potential--are likely to grow. But the questions will be asked in a new context.
Wi-Fi is a low-power application, compared to mobile service, which is a high-power application. Over time, the predominant use of a mobile device--especially a smartphone--has shifted from apps where high power is required (on the go calling, texting or Internet access) to application scenarios are well suited to low power.
That puts the older question--can Wi-Fi compete with mobile--into a new context. Originally, the question might have been whether public Wi-Fi could approximate the connectivity of a mobile network for purposes of making phone calls.
The original value proposition for mobile phones was “calling on the go.” So the potential use of public Wi-Fi was to create a viable network to support calling. These days, smart phones are multi-function devices, used for calling, texting, messaging and content consumption.
And the use venues are different as well. These days, perhaps only 10 percent to 20 percent of total mobile device usage, for all apps and purposes, actually happens when people are “on the go.” all the rest of the usage is in untethered mode at locations where there is Wi-Fi access.
In other words, content consumption now is a major mobile device activity, and most of that consumption does not happen in mobile mode. In other words, the new pattern for content access is primarily untethered, not mobile.
And one might argue that future needs for network capacity increasingly will focus on low-power, localized access, not high-power mobile access. That is why one hears so much about small cells and carrier Wi-Fi, as well as Wi-Fi offload, these days.
That casts the question of whether public Wi-Fi can compete with mobile networks in a new light. End user requirements and device usage have changed.
The crucial need is not so much the usefulness of public Wi-Fi to support voice, but its usefulness in supporting content consumption. Public Wi-Fi might have some value for occasional offload of voice, but it has high value for offload of content consumption, in large part because content consumption does not typically require handing off sessions from one macrocell to another.
The big change to the way we interact with WiFi will only be seen as the HotSpot2.0 standard gains wider adoption. This initiative is based largely on the 802.11u standard and will genuinely transform the industry.
The Hotspot 2.0 standard should improve the utility of public Wi-Fi further, allowing an easier authentication experience, especially for users of public Wi-Fi hotspot services.
So the new question is not so much whether public Wi-Fi can compete with mobile networks, but whether public Wi-Fi will be useful for smart phone content consumption, to say nothing of providing meaningful primary access for devices that also can default to mobile networks when required.
That is a different question than we used to ask. And the point is that the usefulness of public Wi-Fi networks will be dramatically higher as more device communications is supplanted by device media and content consumption.