This week I participated in a panel discussion at JP Morgan’s annual technology conference. My panel was part of Light Reading’s “Telecom 2.0: The Collision of Content and Communications” with the specific topic of “What’s Hot in Mobile Broadband.”
Patrick Donegan kicked off the session with a broad discussion on trends in the mobile broadband space. The centerpiece of his talk was an impressive graph of which mobile broadband technologies were carrying the most traffic today and how that would change over time. His surprising conclusion was that more than 50% of such traffic today is carried by WiFi and that over the coming years WiFi will continue to be the dominant technology in the space.
I won’t argue with Patrick’s inclusion of WiFi in his “mobile” broadband analysis. He only included WiFi use outside the home or office, so it’s consistent with the “make anyplace a workplace” concept that Sprint uses for mobility.
I do, however, question whether WiFi will continue to be the predominate choice for mobile broadband in the future.
What does WiFi have going for it?
Well, for starters, it’s available lots of places. Hotels, coffee shops, airport terminals, etc. WiFi service is relatively affordable. In some places, it’s free. In other places it might cost a couple of bucks an hour or maybe $10 for a full day. But I think the biggest driver is that WiFi is now built into virtually all laptops (and many other mobile devices) on the market today.
But I’m not sure these are sustainable advantages.
By my best guess, public WiFi services cover about 10-20 million POPs in the US. (This is the standard coverage metric for the wireless industry – meaning that about 10-20 million of the US population are covered by public WiFi.) Even with the most aggressive public WiFi buildout plans (ignoring the challenges), this likely won’t reach 100 million POPs over the next several years.
In contrast, Sprint’s EV-DO Rev A network covers nearly 200M POPs today and is continuing to grow. This technology provides performance around 1Mbps, which is probably equivalent to what you’d expect from public WiFi. Service plans typically cost $40-60 per month, so depending on your WiFi usage, monthly spending could be roughly the same. And often an EV-DO card is available for free when you sign up for a plan. (I’m describing Sprint’s capabilities because I know them best, but Verizon and AT&T have similar capabilities and price plans, and although their footprints aren’t as big as Sprint’s, they’re much bigger than the public WiFi coverage.)
In fact, for my work laptop, I’ve taken to only using EV-DO. Even when I’m at home, I’ve found that my VPN performance over EV-DO is better than what I could get over my home WiFi network. On this recent trip, I didn’t bother trying to figure out whether the hotel had free WiFi and how to configure it. I didn’t bother to use the “WiFi access code” printed on the back of my conference name badge to try to use the free WiFi at the event. And best of all, on my brief layover in Milwaukee on the way home, I didn’t need to leave the plane to go into the terminal to access the airport’s WiFi – I had a great EV-DO signal sitting on the plane at the gate and was able to fire off several important e-mails while I waited for my trip to continue.
But – the huge advantage WiFi still has is that, thanks to Intel, the technology is built into virtually every laptop.
Which brings me to WiMax… As a major proponent of WiMax, the expectation is that Intel will similarly drive the technology into laptops in the coming years. WiMax likely will have more aggressive pricing plans than EV-DO. And Sprint has announced that in the first year of availability (next year), coverage will go from 0 to around 100M POPs. And, oh yeah, WiMax likely will deliver faster performance than public WiFi.
Technology built in. Likely coverage almost anywhere I go (and even while riding in a cab at 60MPH). Aggressive pricing. Better performance. Tell me again – why will WiFi continue to carry most of the mobile broadband traffic?
Of course, what I’m really excited about is how all of the above factors are foundational to redefining how we interact with the world. Welcome to the revolution! I guess the Telecom 2.0 label really does fit!