WiFi takes a seat at the cellular table – page 2

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However, it seems the blame does not rest on CDMA chipset supplier Qualcomm. "We've always looked at wireless LAN as a complimentary technology to wireless WAN," said Mike Concannon, senior vice president of connectivity and wireless modules for Qualcomm's chipset division.

Concannon said Qualcomm began working in 2006 with Philips (now NXP) and later Atheros to include support for WiFi in its chips for CDMA phones. "I think we were right on time" in supporting WiFi, he said.

Indeed, it appears Qualcomm is firmly on the WiFi bandwagon; today the company is sampling its own WiFi chip. Concannon pointed his finger at CDMA carriers as the reason behind the WiFi delay. "Other U.S. operators didn't like their devices to access other networks," he said. "They didn't want to pay for another wireless technology. ... I think for a while the carriers were thinking, ‘OK, what's in it for me?'"

Interestingly, it seems Belk now agrees with Concannon's position. "Phone and chip guys NEVER burden their phones and devices with features (READ COST) that their customers don't require and/or can't utilize, or impact their business models," Belk wrote in response to questions from FierceBroadbandWireless about his 2003 WiFi treatise (Belk left Qualcomm in 2008). "Now that the operators are finally seeing WiFi as a ways to cost reduce bit, they are pushing for WiFi in the devices."

Naturally, though, blame is difficult to ascribe. "We've always viewed WiFi as complimentary" to a cellular network, contends Brenda Raney, spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless. Raney said Verizon Wireless has offered WiFi-capable devices since 2006, and listed a number of gadgets in the carrier's current lineup--including the Samsung Omnia sch-i790, Samsung Saga i770, HTC Touch Pro xv6850, HTC Diamond xv6950 and Verizon Wireless xv 6800--that support WiFi.

To be fair, Raney said Verizon Wireless has focused on its cellular, 3G wares in order to meet customer needs. "Our customers have become accustomed to accessing our high-speed data network from wherever and whenever they are," she said, adding that Verizon wanted to make sure its subscribers could "rely on the network and not WiFi."

Current Analysis' Jarich offered a bit of clarity. First, he said, WiFi technology didn't evolve as quickly as operators had expected, which provided them with enough time to evaluate the service with cooler heads. As Qualcomm's Concannon pointed out, WiFi "has yet to make its way into feature phones and below."

Second, Jarich said, the metro- and muni-WiFi industry didn't take off as some had worried. Companies including EarthLink and Google invested significant resources in building citywide WiFi networks, actions that caused a great deal of concern to carriers that make much of their revenues providing wireless access to city dwellers. The collapse of the muni-WiFi effort--highlighted primarily by EarthLink's abandonment of the space--again provided wireless operators relief.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, wireless carriers became involved in the unlimited game, dropping their plans to charge by the byte. Unlimited wireless plans removed the incentive for carriers to encourage users to transmit more information over cellular networks. In fact, unlimited plans created an equally powerful reason for carriers to offload traffic from their networks.

Is WiFi a 3G traffic solution?

"Solutions like WiFi, FMC, femtocells, etc., will at least partially mitigate/offload some of the huge growth of traffic that is happening/will continue to happen over the next while," wrote Frost & Sullivan analyst Ron Gruia. "Therefore, all players (vendors and service providers alike) will have to pay a close attention to those solutions, and Qualcomm and Verizon Wireless are no exceptions to this. Maybe they were not initially as active as Motorola, Deutsche Telekom (T-Mobile USA), etc., but they will surely make a few moves to beef up on WiFi."

CDG's Person agreed, and pointed to AT&T's recent decision to prohibit Sling Media's SlingPlayer Mobile iPhone application from transmitting video over its cellular network--and instead to use WiFi. "I think a carrier would be happy to have that offloaded off their 3G network," he said.

Such comments raise a question that would have been unthinkable in 2003: Do wireless carriers need a WiFi play? AT&T certainly thinks so; the carrier invested $275 million to purchase WiFi provider Wayport.

"With ATT and T-Mobile having WiFi resources as part of their mobile broadband and smartphone data plan offerings, it provides a service differentiator against Sprint and Verizon Wireless," said Current Analysis' William Ho. "So moving onto WiFi seamlessly provides subscribers with a better data experience and the operator offloads traffic from the cellular/mobile network."

Will history repeat itself?

As carriers come to grips with a WiFi reality, the issue helps to highlight the changing wireless technology playground in general. CCS Insight's Jackson contends that wireless carriers' refreshed attitude toward WiFi is reflected across a number of other issues: Witness Verizon Wireless' embrace of Java (the carrier had been a longtime BREW supporter) and the CDMA community's wholesale commitment to LTE as its 4G technology of choice.

Indeed, technological lines in the sand--once held so dearly--in some cases appear to be washing away. Perhaps it's not the method customers use to access voice and data services, but the way they are billed and the services they interact with that's important.

"The idea that we're in some kind of zero-sum technology war has passed," mused Jackson.

Of course, the feeling isn't universal. A recent post by Ian Chard at Juniper Research lays out a number of arguments against WiFi as a reliable transmission technology, highlighting its detrimental affect on battery life, limited coverage and possibly lax security measures. The tone of the post, dated July 20, 2009, is noticeably similar to Belk's 2003 essay, albeit significantly shorter.

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