Apple, HotSpot 2.0 and massive hotspot deployments mean Wi-Fi has left the building

Monica Alleven, FierceWirelessTechThe notion that Wi-Fi is somehow a second-class citizen because it's the "offload" for cellular operators? Well, that just doesn't hold water any longer.

Consider this. If given a choice, most consumers already choose Wi-Fi first and cellular second. If you're sitting in a coffee shop, you don't search out, typically, for a wide area wireless network to check e-mail or post to Facebook. You connect with Wi-Fi. Same goes for airports, hotels and conference centers.

I might have been more skeptical a few years or even 12 months ago, but recent moves in the Wi-Fi community have me thinking the threat is not only real, but it's coming faster than some of us might have thought. Of course, engineers and business professionals have been working on it for years and to them, I doubt it feels like a train racing down the tracks.

Granted, the inability to find an available Wi-Fi connection at busy trade shows and convention centers (even at famous Apple product launch events) became a running joke--or more accurately, a gigantic peeve--among journalists who were covering this very technology. Thankfully, improvements are being made at convention centers, stadiums and other large, crowded venues throughout the country.

MVNOs like Republic Wireless, Scratch Wireless and Freedom Pop represent some of the early risk-takers, and they're making progress. To be sure, there were glitches to iron out, especially when it comes to handoffs. Republic CEO David Morken admitted to FierceWireless last year that the company's earlier Wi-Fi-to-cellular handoff was "painful," so the company recruited engineers from Nuance Communications, IBM and other companies, including former Nortel Networks engineers, to improve the normalization of codecs between Wi-Fi and cellular.

Just in the past several months, mobile operators seem to be changing their tune about Wi-Fi calling--maybe nudged along with a little help from their friends at Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL).

Boingo CEO David Hagan noted in the company's third-quarter conference call that there was a tide change in the third quarter in terms of carriers' willingness to use Wi-Fi to address network capacity issues. T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) used Apple's iPhone 6 launch to showcase Wi-Fi calling support across all flagship devices, and in short order, all of the major U.S. carriers announced some intent to support Wi-Fi calling as well. "We believe this shows that carriers are beginning to embrace Wi-Fi networks as part of their overall service package," he said.

Boingo is not alone. Since Apple came out in support of Wi-Fi calling, players in the Wi-Fi industry--Taqua, Ruckus Wireless and Devicescape, to name a few--have noted greater interest in Wi-Fi calling, fueling the "Wi-Fi first" movement for more devices to automatically sign onto Wi-Fi first, falling back to 3G or LTE only if Wi-Fi connectivity is not adequate.

But using Wi-Fi as part of the overall network strategy is not the same as embracing it like the cable industry has done. As U.K. analyst Joe Madden of Mobile Experts points out, the cellular carriers made a "gigantic blunder" by ceding Wi-Fi to cable operators. By the end of 2014, Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) and Cablevision (NYSE: CVC) will have turned on nearly 9 million hotspots, FierceCable reports.

Global hotspot numbers are expected to grow to more than 340 million--that's nearly one hotspot for every 20 people on Earth by 2018. That compares to one Wi-Fi hotspot for every 150 people today, according to an iPass study conducted by analysts at Maravedis Rethink.

Efforts to solve the roaming issues, such as through HotSpot 2.0, are making the roaming experience more like cellular. Technologies like HotSpot 2.0 Release 2 address provisioning and credentialing, and efforts around Release 2 are moving faster than they did for Release 1. That should speed the deployment of it.

Disruptive technologies are always going to be a threat to established players. In the case of Wi-Fi, it might feel like it's taking a long, long time. But it is becoming the replacement for cellular, just as the cellular industry feared all those years ago.--Monica

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