Summit take-away: Wi-Fi's still got a quality of service issue

Monica Alleven, FierceWirelessTechSAN MATEO, Calif.--It was probably apropos that Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) would announce its MVNO on the second day of the Wi-Fi Innovation Summit. After all, many of the players at the summit are pioneers in the Wi-Fi-to-cellular handoff business.

Of course, true to form, Google did not have anyone officially representing the company on panels or sessions. However, the company did send Karl Garcia, Google's Wi-Fi Evangelist, who attended the summit as an observer to hear what's on the minds of fellow Wi-Fi industry experts.

A lot of the speakers at the summit talked about lessons learned over the past 10 or so years. Remarkably, while technology has marched onward, so have the habits of its users. Garcia reminded me that networks like the one that served the city of Mountain View, Calif., were designed for laptops--not today's smartphones and tablets, which are not only in nearly everybody's hands but also are being used to watch video.

In the 2005-2006 timeframe, nobody was streaming video anywhere near today's levels, noted Garcia, who helped design and then managed Google's Mountain View Wi-Fi network for about seven years. He added that Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX) introduced its streaming service in February of 2007.

The original Mountain View Wi-Fi network was decommissioned in 2014, but Google's Fiber Wireless team is building a denser, albeit smaller, network to replace it. The Fiber Wireless team is the one that's installing and managing Starbuck's Wi-Fi network.

Ironically (or not) considering the controversy around LTE in unlicensed spectrum, a lot of what we've learned in the Wi-Fi indusry has been taken from the cellular world. Wi-Fi doesn't have SIM cards, which make so many things easier for consumers. The Wi-Fi industry is trying to solve a lot of problems with HotSpot 2.0 and Passpoint to get the experience as seamless and in many ways, more like cellular.

Part of the challenge is competing business strategies, noted Rob Cerbone, vice president of wireless product management at Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC), during a panel discussion with T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) and Boingo Wireless. "It's unfortunate that if I have a customer and they're a T-Mobile customer and they're a Time Warner Cable customer, we should be able to figure out how to make those two things work together seamlessly, so the customer doesn't have to go figure all that out and provision it on their own," he said.

Today, some business issues stand in the way, and it's probably less technical than business related, he added.

Asked what innovation he'd like to see, Josh Lonn, senior director of communications services at T-Mobile, said that as a marketer, "I wish I could wave a magic wand and change customer perception around Wi-Fi. There was, not so long ago, a time when our reps would instruct customers … to turn Wi-Fi off because there was this conception that power management was an issue," and quality of service was an issue.

"There's this lagging perception around Wi-Fi and some of that's our fault. It hasn't always been easy, and I think it's up to the folks in this room to start driving that innovation, smoothing out those kinks," he said. When it's working, it's great. "The more we can drive that forward, the more we can change that perception."

Speaking of service quality and perceptions, I know some fellow attendees inside the conference room where the speakers were presenting had no trouble whatsover maintaining a Wi-Fi connection. However, I was not the only one who noticed some disconnects. Of course, the farther we moved from that room, i.e., just down that hall: no connection. Maybe we should blame the summit's venue, the Marriott.  

OK, so Wi-Fi is not designed for mobility in mind, and sometimes, the best solution, or more reliable, is back to wide area wireless, or LTE. Based on a conversation with WIS Chairman Claus Hetting, there are efforts under way by folks like himself to do more work around the quality of service issues that plague Wi-Fi, which are not the case for LTE. Let's hope they keep at it.--Monica