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Going Going Gone… Not so Fast

Posted by Todd Mersch on 5 April 2017

When watching sports, I suffer from chronic early celebration and – without fail – my exuberance acts as a jinx. “He’s going to take it to the house… fumble”, “Goooooaaa… crossbar”, “Swoosh… brick” – you get the point – I make a premature exclamation of success which immediately results in failure. So you can understand my kindred feelings toward Bloomberg Technology when I saw their recent article portending the death of Wi-Fi. The article makes the case that the re-emergence of unlimited plans from mobile operators in the US will make the technology obsolete.

Hopefully the author is taking a dramatic tone to get people to read the article. Hardcore cellular supporters rejoice and Wi-Fi nuts scoff in disdain, but they all clicked on and read the article. However, let’s take a more sober view of the potential for unlimited plans to bring on the end of Wi-Fi. The first thing to keep in mind, as Dean Bubley so aptly pointed out, is that the device ecosystem has always driven and will always drive wireless technology uptake. Wi-Fi is already embedded in billions of devices, will be embedded in billions more and remains dramatically cheaper than cellular equivalents. Secondly, the majority of data traffic is and will continue to be consumed indoors, with most between the busy hours of 7pm and11 pm in the home. Cellular networks tend to suffer from poor indoor coverage and small cells have not met the cost needs to fill the gap – and the solution is largely Wi-Fi offload. The amount of data consumed in the home is expected to grow to 450 Gb per month by 2020¹. Converting 100s of millions of households to small cells, billions of devices to SIM-based and handling 450 Gb per month will not kill Wi-Fi, but the expense for carriers to support that scale would most certainly murder the business case for unlimited plans.

The article also contends that businesses, like coffee shops, will gleefully get rid of Wi-Fi since their customers will not need to use it anymore. But why would the coffee shop give up that customer touchpoint and opportunity to enhance the experience with that business? Especially as operators and equipment vendors are offering easy to use and managed cloud-based Wi-Fi solutions that keep costs low and headaches to a minimum. Finally, the article largely contends that people will prefer to use cellular when its free because it works better than Wi-Fi. I can certainly raise my hand as one of the many who have shutoff my Wi-Fi to ensure I stayed on cellular due to a maddingly poor experience. However, there are not only solutions emerging that bring Wi-Fi experience closer to that of cellular, but significant business drivers for operators (e.g. MSO / cablecos) to provide reliable, high-performance Wi-Fi.

In the end, the clickbait here is not a new tactic. We as an industry tend to speak in absolutes. One technology can win out over another, such as with VHS vs Betamax or Blu-Ray vs HD-DVD, but this is less common in the wireless domain. The diversification of technology in wireless will increase as operators, managed service providers and device makers look to take advantage of all types of spectrum to deliver increasingly disparate services to an ever more demanding customer base. In the end, unlimited cellular plans are not going to kill Wi-Fi. Just like “free Wi-Fi” has yet to destroy mobile.

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