One of the things trying hard to be a fad these days is the “super-WiFi” that could utilize the TV broadcast spectrum white space. The technology, regulatory position, and usage of this spectrum is still very much an open question, in my view, and there may be no more difficult question than whether it’s going to have much play. That question is what role WiFi or unlicensed spectrum might play in the future service dynamic.
Mobile broadband demands mobility, obviously, and the classic approach to that is to use 3G/4G services to a device. This model worked fine with phones because cellular telephony was the primary service goal of phone buyers. With tablets, everyone quickly realized that the primary goal was Internet access; voice was almost a non-issue. Everyone also realized that tablets with WiFi were cheaper than those with cellular service, and of course had no ongoing service plan costs. As a result, probably more than 90% of all tablets in use are WiFi-based.
Operators have had a love-hate relationship with WiFi all along. In the smartphone market, most use WiFi offload to reduce the data traffic load generated by users in hospitality locations where they’re free to stream video and engage in more traffic-intensive activities. Many operators run their own hot spots for a fee. However, the tablet is opening a new question for them, which is whether tablets and WiFi might create a wave of opportunity that could undermine the value of their (expensive) 3G/4G networks.
There have been many experiments in municipal WiFi, nearly all of which have failed. The problem there was that the goal of universal coverage could only be met through mesh configurations that had limited overall capacity and high operations costs. The new WiFi model is to forget the user on the move, or even the “average” user at home, and focus only on hospitality. If every store owner, every coffee shop, felt they had to deploy WiFi to keep customers in their facility, then these owners would bear the cost. This would then create this enormous pool of “mobile” broadband that users could tap, continue to skew tablets toward WiFi, and perhaps eventually create a whole market based on unlicensed spectrum.
Some operators tell me that their interest in smaller cells for 4G arises from the need to address the problem that tablets and hospitality-Fi could create. A femto- or micro- or pico-cell is still a cell, still licensed spectrum, still billable to the operator. The problem is that the horse has left the gate here; tablets are already out there in growing numbers and the number will continue to grow. Anything that makes WiFi more pervasive will make this underground broadband network more important. Super-WiFi might be such a thing, but I don’t think so because it would need new RF chip technology to work, something tablets won’t be equipped with for years. It’s the old-fashioned WiFi that may change things.