Jonathan Jensen on Thursday – A bright future for WiFi

This week’s post from Mobile Industry Review.
Recently I’ve had several conversations with people about the future of WiFi. The debate around WiFi versus 3G data is a contentious one that frequently provokes a frank exchange of views! However this ‘either or’ debate misses the point because WiFi and 3G should be viewed as complementary, rather than competing, wireless access methods. I’m a big fan of WiFi; for example it gives me better mobile coverage at home than my 3G service provider plus very cheap roaming coverage in specific locations when I’m away. As with the App Store, the iPhone has brought many more people into contact with something that used to be the preserve of mobile geeks – mobile WiFi.
3G mobile data (and its developments) is good but suffers from issues like flaky coverage, cell capacity constraints and backhaul bottlenecks. Public WiFi has coverage limitations but where it does work it generally delivers decent speeds and consistent service. The lack of roaming agreements between the big service providers is a frustration and I’d like to see a move towards ubiquitous coverage via more service provider co-operation, i.e. if you can find a signal you know you can use it, with service differentiation based around price, and value-adds.
Devicescape recently undertook some research into their user base to understand what WiFi users want from service providers and how people use WiFi. Key findings from the report showed:

  • An overwhelming number of WiFi users expect WiFi while on the road (91%)
  • Most respondents want citywide WiFi (84%) and many are willing to pay for it (56%)
  • When travelling, the most popular device for accessing WiFi was the smartphone, such as an iPhone (vs.laptops)
  • The overwhelming majority of smartphone users (81%) prefer using WiFi over 3G for browsing Web sites, downloading data, Google searches and sending e-mail
  • 86% of respondents want manufacturers to build WiFi into their handsets
  • 82% of respondents want the service provider to provide an overall 3G/WiFi data package

Whilst this research is focused on existing WiFi users it does show that people who already use WiFi don’t see 3G as an alternative wireless access method but as complementary to WiFi. I’ve blogged about Devicescape before; what they do is make WiFi access simple. Devicescape Easy Wi-Fi automates the hotspot login process to create a seamless user experience. Increasingly, this means Devicescape is hidden from the user and the service provider’s software uses Devicescape to manage the WiFi login process. DeFi Mobile uses this model and makes the hotspot login process fast and automatic. This simplicity addresses what has always been a barrier to simple WiFi use – the login process.
The next step for service providers is to create a completely seamless user experience across both 3G and WiFi. Users should not have to decide themselves which wireless access technology to use. The software should determine whether 3G or WiFi is appropriate. For the 3G service providers it makes sense to ship traffic via WiFi where they can, in order to preserve cell capacity for non WiFi users.
Mobile VoIP is an interesting but potentially very confusing (especially for Normobs) part of the WiFi market, so it’s good to see LowCostMob bringing some clarity here. Comparing mobile VoIP is a bit of a black art because each service provider has a slightly different take on the market and it’s not just a simple matter of comparing tariffs. Users need to compare functionality and features as well as prices to determine which service provider to use. Some clarity here will help to drive progress in this part of the WiFi market.

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