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What to Do When Public Wi-Fi Lets You Down


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Mobile operators continue to trash Wi-Fi technology in an attempt to legitimize their obsession with private 5G, but I’ve decided the only story I want to hear is how the powers that be are going to make these critical elements in our mobile infrastructure cooperate to deliver a world-class user experience.
To reiterate a point I’ve made numerous times, roughly 75% of smartphone data traffic is carried over Wi-Fi. That’s because your phone decides whether it will transmit data over Wi-Fi or cellular data service, and Wi-Fi is the default choice (you can change this default selection in Android models, but I haven’t heard of anyone doing it). As a result, if your smartphone can associate with a Wi-Fi network (either your home Wi-Fi, office Wi-Fi, or any publicly available hot spot) that’s where it will try to send your data.
I live in the New York City area, so you’d think that if there’s good wireless service to be had, you’d find it here. The answer is, yes and no. Every carrier’s list of 5G cities includes NYC. We also have abundant public Wi-Fi, courtesy of Altice, formerly Cablevision, one of our local cable companies.
What I’ve discovered is that this abundance of access results in a paucity of wireless coverage. The big lesson here is that having bad Wi-Fi is worse than having no Wi-Fi at all.
If You Love Me, Set Me Free
Long before being acquired by Dutch firm Altice, Cablevision had embarked on the Wi-Fi path, deploying thousands of hot spots as part of their Optimum service, particularly in areas where they provided cable TV service. Altice is also a member of the Cable Wi-Fi consortium, along with Cox and Xfinity, providing a nationwide roaming network for their cable TV subscribers with a reported two million access points. I can’t speak for all two million, but I haven’t found any Optimum access points that aren’t a dead end.
Now that I’ve mentioned we have 5G cellular service all over the New York area, so bad Wi-Fi should be irrelevant, right? Wrong.
Your smartphone logically decides what network it’s going to use for data traffic, but that doesn’t necessarily result in a wise decision. If your not-so-smart phone sees a Wi-Fi service set identifier (SSID) it knows, and will automatically jump on. However, if that network turns out to be as dead as Mussolini, then you’re stuck with it.
Having worked with Wi-Fi networks a lot, I’ve seen this Wi-Fi-in-the-way situation before. The most frequent culprit is allowing too many devices to associate with an access point (AP), burying it in traffic. In some cases, we found it can be caused by setting the minimum data rate the AP will accept too low. If you allow 802.11b stations to associate at 1M or 2Mbps, you’ll attract stations far and wide to your network, but only at data rates that will crush performance.
Whatever the cause, there’s no alert from the phone saying, “The Wi-Fi sucks!” Users who are out and about may eventually notice that none of their data-driven services seems to be working. That’s the sign you’re stuck on another dead Optimum hotspot.
The only way out of this conundrum is to turn off Wi-Fi, leaving cellular as your smartphone’s only choice. Turning off Wi-Fi impairs location accuracy (as your phone reminds every time Wi-Fi is turned off), and you have to remember to turn it back on when you get back to a place with good Wi-Fi (i.e., when you get away from the Optimum problem).
My Wi-Fi Alliance contacts tell me that there’s a solution to this problem in its Wi-Fi Vantage Certification, but if it’s not working in the country’s largest public Wi-Fi consortium (Cable Wi-Fi), I’ve got to wonder where is it working?
So, Is 5G the Answer?
This Wi-Fi-in-the-way situation is a persistent annoyance for mobile data users, but it’s also distressing in terms of our hopes for public Wi-Fi as the most promising competitor to cellular for wide-area wireless. With millions of public Wi-Fi hotspots worldwide, you shouldn’t be out of range of one for more than a few yards, if you stay within cities. If there was one technology with a coverage footprint that could offer an alternative to cellular for wide-area wireless, this is it. However, if Optimum is going to be the model for public Wi-Fi service, I can’t see it as a mainline alternative for enterprise users.
Despite the relentless drive to 5G, AT&T, at least, continues to count on Wi-Fi. I’m an AT&T subscriber, and cellular coverage in our area has never been great. About five years ago, after complaining about our coverage problems, AT&T sent me a book-sized AT&T MicroCell.
For those unfamiliar with cellular minutia, the AT&T MicroCell is what we generically call a femtocell. This device acts like a little cellular base station in your house (or small office) and connects back to the cellular network through your broadband Internet connection. Phones must be registered to access your femtocell, but from then on, when you step into the house, your phone would automatically roam onto the femtocell.
With a femtocell, cellular calls are carried on a licensed cellular channel to the femtocell, the cellular voice transmission is encapsulated in a series of Internet protocol (IP) packets and sent in a secure tunnel set up over your broadband Internet connection to AT&T’s network. A gateway in the AT&T network strips off the Internet overhead and then treats that femtocell call like any other coming in over its radio access network. It’s all pretty ingenious and saves the cost of improving the network while quieting down annoying complainers like me. In the carrier environment, that’s called a win-win.
Earlier this month, I got an email from AT&T informing me that MicroCell was discontinued from the program and I should consign mine to the waste bin. It turns out that my MicroCell isn’t 5G compatible, and as we all know, we’re now going 5G. Of course, neither my wife nor I have bothered to buy 5G phones yet, so AT&T is going on to 5G without us for now.
Apparently, AT&T anticipated laggards like us, so in the instructions to dump the MicroCell, it mentions the importance of turning on Wi-Fi Calling in our cellular settings. I guess AT&T’s migration path from LTE to 5G runs over Wi-Fi.
At this point, it’s unclear how Wi-Fi and 5G cellular performance will compare. There is some question about the lower frequency (i.e., Sub-6 GHz) 5G services, but the higher-frequency (i.e. >20 GHz.) millimeter-wave should definitely be in the same performance category as Wi-Fi –not necessarily Optimum –but Wi-Fi in general.
As the carriers refuse to acknowledge their dependence on Wi-Fi, we have no idea what will happen if a smartphone user winds up in an area with both Wi-Fi and millimeter-wave 5G. Is Wi-Fi still the default?
One last but important note—throughout all of this, the user for the most part has no idea what’s going on. The carriers are consistently opaque about letting customers know how any of this works, and the information they do release is designed to maintain that confusion while reinforcing the marketing message, “5G is all you need.”
So, is 5G the answer after all? My short answer is no. 5G is ‘an’ answer, or maybe part of an answer, but it’s clearly not the answer.
What’s the Answer?
The answer for both the cellular operators and the Wi-Fi industry is to quit bickering, and focus on the common goal, which is (or should be) to provide users with services that allow them to maintain seamless mobile connectivity with the performance required by the application they’re using while keeping all of the magic behind the curtain (but available to the curious).
The grand prize winner in the “what were they thinking?” category was Verizon bragging about spending $80 million to equip Raymond James Stadium with millimeter-wave 5G Ultra-Wideband for Super Bowl LV.
My takeaway was that more than two-thirds of fans in attendance received no benefit at all. First, Verizon services roughly a third of the market, leaving the other two-thirds of cellular customers on the outs. From there, it’s only the Verizon customers who upgraded to 5G phones (with the millimeter-wave capability) who might have noticed a difference. If they implemented a Wi-Fi 6 network, virtually everyone could use it. Now, that would be news.
The carriers know that cellular customers depend on Wi-Fi and likely will for many years to come. So, it would be nice if they dropped their misguided Wi-Fi trash-talking and started describing plans driven by service enhancements, like ones that integrate the two technologies effectively, rather than being driven by crazy delusions of technology dominance.
I realize an inbred tension exists between technical and marketing. I’ve worked in both disciplines, and the biggest difference is that technical solutions require compromise, but marketing only allows for one answer: “We’re the best.”
Despite the challenges, the market has produced two marvelous wireless technologies: cellular and Wi-Fi. From the user's perspective, both are needed and will most definitely have significant roles to play for the next several years (i.e., as far into the wireless future as we can reasonable predict). We’d all be much happier if the wireless industry put an end to pointless marketing-driven squabbles and just give us what we’re paying for.