CableWiFi: Wi-Fi Far and Wide
It appears that Wi-Fi will be an increasingly important element in the public wireless technology mix.
It looks as if LTE will be getting a big dose of low-cost competition from the cable TV companies. Five of the major US cable operators announced they will begin supporting free roaming for their respective customers, effectively opening up a coast-to-coast network with 50,000 Hot Spots. The service will be called CableWiFi, and is based on an agreement among Cox, Time Warner, Comcast (XFINITY), Bright House, and my local cable provider, Cablevision (Optimum).
I have written about Cablevision before, and they really have done a great job with their Wi-Fi service around my home on Long Island. Any subscriber to their cable modem service gets free access to an extensive network of Hot Spots. The company has been advertising the advantages of their Optimum Wi-Fi over capped 3G/4G services in a series of TV ads. Having that same capability most places I travel has nothing but an upside for me.
On a bigger front, this is also a play by the cable companies to keep a hand in the mobility game. While the cablecos once had visions of going head-to-head with the mobile operators in offering wide area voice and data services, those illusions seem to have come to an end with the proposed sale of their AWS spectrum holdings to Verizon this past December. Cablevision did file for a patent that could allow for a combined Wi-Fi/cellular offering, but that idea has proved challenging to everyone who has embarked on it.
However, with the growing importance of video in the mobile space, the cablecos and the mobile operators are still shouldering into each others' territories. One of the other "freebies" Cablevision is offering to its subscribers is an iPad app that allows you to stream most of their live and on-demand content over your home Wi-Fi network or through one of their public hot spots. If you are a heavy video user (which I am not), you could easily top out a 3-Gbyte cellular plan, but now you can get the same service for free over Cablevision's Optimum Wi-Fi.
In its Visual Networking Index (VNI), Cisco has been touting the prediction that global mobile data traffic will increase 18-fold between 2011 and 2016 and will come to represent over 70% of mobile traffic. Specifically, "Mobile data traffic will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 78 percent from 2011 to 2016, reaching 10.8 exabytes per month by 2016." The big questions are: 1) Are they talking about video teleconferencing or streaming video? and 2) Is that traffic going to be carried on cellular, Wi-Fi, or some other wireless network?
In the past year we have seen a spate of video teleconferencing (VTC) apps for tablets (and in some cases smartphones) from Avaya, Polycom, Cisco, Radvision (now being acquired by Avaya), and Damaka. As I am not seeing a groundswell of interest among my clients on VTC to the tablet, I'm taking a wait-and-see attitude toward that.
On the question of whether the bulk of that video traffic winds up on cellular or Wi-Fi networks, my bet is on Wi-Fi. First, unless the cellular networks adopt a microcell/femtocell architecture more akin to a Wi-Fi network (e.g. typical cell radius of 50 to 100 feet), I can't see how the cellular networks could support that volume of traffic. Further, wireless industry analyst Chetan Sharma is reporting that 90% of current tablet sales are Wi-Fi only models. Clearly cost is a factor, as no one seems to be in a big hurry to start shelling out for yet another cellular data plan for their tablet. However, the operators are starting to hint at data plans that will cover both the smartphone and the tablet and even family data plans, but that still leaves the capacity challenge.
However the long term picture shakes out, it appears that Wi-Fi will be an increasingly important element in the public wireless technology mix. For traveling users, the more wireless choices the better, and "free" is still a pretty tough price to beat.