Will WiFi usurp 4G's status before it's even begun?
By Mark Pearce, strategic alliance director at Enterasys Networks
A recent annual report by Deloitte warns that soon mobile operators will be unable to keep up with smartphone users' growing demands for data on the move. With the average iPhone, Android or Windows Phone handset owners consuming 35 times more data traffic than a typical phone user, the mobile data service is suffering.
Originally launched in 2003, 3G has recently been creaking under the weight of our data demands resulting in a data bandwidth crunch. It is hoped that 4G will solve this however, slow 4G adoption, cost and restricted availability could prolong the agony. The continuing bandwidth crunch will not mean mobile network users failing to obtain a connection, but they will suffer from 'rush hours' just like roads. In the worst situations, download speeds may be under 1Mbps for lengthy periods of time, making video streaming impossible and web browsing difficult.
The pursuit for wireless bandwidthFrom the experience of the issues associated with 3G, focusing solely on mobile internet using 4G would be naive. It overlooks the viable alternatives that are already available such as high density WiFi. Although WiFi is not able to provide the same geographical spread of coverage as 3G and 4G, the bandwidth and reliability that it can supply is significantly greater. With the new standards of 802.11.ac imminent, this will only increase. In the not too distant future, 802.11ac promises extremely fast wireless connection, greater range, improved reliability and lowered power consumption. It is the latest evolution of WiFi and promises near equivalent performance to that of traditional wired networks. Not only will there be bandwidth to spare for applications such as gaming and HD video streaming, but also a dramatic improvement in latency which is a key consideration, especially for real time video. The latency of WiFi is generally four times lower than 4G LTE.WiFi versus 4G WiFi is playing an increasingly more active role in the delivery of mobile communications, especially in built up areas, where there is a great deal of 'traffic' on the 3G and (where available), 4G networks. Apart from remote or rural locations, WiFi hotspots are, and continue to be more widespread and pervasive. Compared with 4G, they are best placed to deliver the demand for wireless bandwidth that consumers and business users alike have come to expect whilst mobile. In a recent survey it was revealed that 90% of people said they wouldn't change their current mobile provider to have access to 4G. According to Virgin Media Business, the main reason consumers will not change providers for 4G access is to save money, and over 60% of the 2000 consumers surveyed said they wouldn't pay more to access 4G.
Another aspect is cost. Connecting to WiFi hotspots is often free. All you need to do is Google 'free WiFi hotspots in London' and a whole list of available free-of-charge bandwidth is at your disposal. On the other side of the coin however, EE, the company which operates the UK's first to-market, and currently only 4G cellular network will be pricing its 'super users' tariff (20GB a month) at £76 a month.
While 4G services will give consumers access to fast internet speeds across a wider area than WiFi, this is not necessarily a ubiquitous service. It is very likely that even in dense metropolitan areas there will be many instances where WiFi coverage may be better than 4G. After all, how many times have we been in places (indoors and outdoors) where the cellular signal is non-existent or very weak, to the point that data transmission is painful/impossible?
The future of WiFiAs the divide between work and personal life blurs even further, good quality WiFi is going to become part of everyday life. Organisations are already paying for employees' home broadband so it seems a natural extension that 'company created' WiFi hotspot networks will become part of the 'always on' culture of the future, leaving 4G for those remote locations. Corporately provisioned WiFi hotspots are a business trend that is likely to increase further, especially as more businesses realign the potential marketing and brand awareness capabilities their WiFi networks can provide.
This is especially true within the hospitality and sporting arena market, in the US, the New England Patriots American football team have recently installed an ultra high density WiFi network from Enterasys Networks over which they run high definition video to fans within the stadium. It is a captive audience on their own network, providing a huge opportunity to increase brand loyalty for their patrons. It captures valuable information on usage and behaviour. It is also a potential new revenue source (by offering new services), something that simply wouldn't be possible on a publicly provisioned 3G or 4G cellular network. At the end of the day, it is likely that 4G and WiFi will happily coexist, but the industry's recent focus on WiFi and Cloud is supported by the recent acquisition of Meraki by Cisco. This gives a huge indication of where the industry feels the connectivity battle will be fought and won in a clear move to focus on cloud delivery to supply usable connectivity.
When super fast and reliable WiFi connectivity is already available to us, I think it would be foolish not to recognise the best option.
Enterasys Networks is a global provider of wired and wireless network infrastructure and security solutions. Its solutions enable organisations to drive down IT costs while improving business productivity and efficiency through a unique combination of automation, visibility and control capabilities.