Which Will Win: Wi-Fi-First, Wi-Fi-Only or Wi-Fi Sometimes?

Republic Wireless and Scratch Wireless already offer discount mobile service on Wi-Fi-first basis. Google and  Comcast reportedly also are looking at the idea.

To be sure, whether public Wi-Fi can compete with mobile has been asked for a decade and a half. Until recently, the answer has been “not yet.” The question was asked of 3G networks and now is asked about 4G networks.

Arguably, two major hurdles will have to be overcome, first, ubiquity of public Wi-Fi access and second, the business model.

For the moment, ubiquity remains the biggest challenge, as it remains difficult to ensure coverage, let alone roaming, on public Wi-Fi today, outside the fairly limited universe of cafes, malls, hotels, airports and other areas where there is high pedestrian traffic.

Business models also are key, though. There is a key difference between services that provide full roaming and those that conceivably could be built on untethered access (hotspot based).

Though a “phone” service requires roaming, a service based on untethered access for Internet apps, used primarily when users are stationary, is different. The classic examples are mobile phone service and public Wi-Fi hotspots.

The developing opportunity is for something possibly in between, oriented around content consumption rather than real-time communications.

One might argue such concepts have been tried before, as with the Personal Handy Phone System. There was some thinking such a service might also develop in the United States, around the time Personal Communications Service spectrum was awarded in the 1.8 GHz band.

As it turned out, PCS wound up being “cellular telephone service.” But all that was before the Internet, before broadband, before the rise of Internet-based content consumption.

Though it is hard to tell whether all those changes, plus the advent of smartphones and tablets, small cells and more public Wi-Fi, will finally enable a Wi-Fi-only approach to services that appeal to a large base of consumers. In the past, rapid development of fully-mobile services has fundamentally limited the appeal of such less-than-fully-mobile services.

But you might also argue that consumer behavior already includes use of both modes: mobile for communications and Wi-Fi (at home, at work, plus public Wi-Fi) for PCs, tablets and offloaded mobile media consumption.

So some might argue the biggest opportunity is for Wi-Fi-first, rather than Wi-Fi-only, services. People already understand and use devices and networks in a “Wi-Fi-sometimes” or “Wi-Fi-frequently” mode.

So if Wi-Fi-first is to succeed as a major service, it will have to default to mobile mode, and use public or private Wi-Fi access simply to lower overall costs of operation.

The issue is that mobile operators can do this as well as attackers.
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