Mobility Loop


Originally published by Mobility Loop.

Reposted with permission.

Copyright © 2006 Core Competence Inc.

All rights reserved.


Here, There, but still not Everywhere




Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Written by Lisa Phifer   

PhiferIf you’re a business traveler in search of high-speed wireless Internet access, then you know the drill. Find a cozy spot with nominal Wi-Fi service in your hotel lobby, nearby bookstore, or closest Starbucks. If you’re lucky, that hotspot won’t stray far from your day’s itinerary, and will be served by a provider with whom you have a monthly account. While hotspot locations and roaming agreements are expanding, the cold hard truth is that Wi-Fi does not (yet) offer anywhere-anytime mobile access.

Carriers like Verizon, Sprint Nextel, and Cingular ask us to believe that 3G wireless data services are a better answer. You’ve seen the ads: Wi-Fi hotspots merely dot the landscape, while 3G blankets the city with ubiquitous coverage. Hmmm. In principal, I get this. 3G technologies are designed to deliver wide-area, not local-area, network services. But, in practice, this doesn’t accurately represent my reality. Why not?

Speed. I have used wireless data services for a decade. I struggled with GSM, was disappointed by "high speed" GPRS, then once again by EDGE. V.90-like wireless would have been welcome back in 1996, but residential broadband and Wi-Fi have raised the bar an order of magnitude. Faced with using EDGE from the comfort of my hotel room or driving a mile for Wi-Fi, I trek to that hotspot 9 times out of 10. When I recently stepped up from CDMA/1xEV-DO, I finally found a connection over which I could productively check email and surf the web. Today, 1xEV-DO and UMTS offer considerably less horsepower than 802.11g. Tomorrow, EV-DV and HSDPA will still pale in comparison to 802.11n. But do mobile professionals require multi-megabit bandwidth, or Internet access that is really fast enough to get their work done?

Coverage. Of course, I can only work productively over EV-DO when I happen to connect from within an EV-DO serving area. Although I truly appreciate my EV-DO modem's ability to fall back to older, slower services, I'd rather be able to count on having EV-DO most of the time. In the US, true 3G coverage is growing, but is still arguably thin. For example, Verizon Wireless offers "Broadband Access" service in just 51 cities, from Atlanta to Washington DC. Here in Philadelphia, that coverage ends just short of my suburban location, 30 miles from center city. In short, today I am far more likely to find Wi-Fi hotspots when I travel than I am to find EV-DO.

Ease of Use. The "Centrino factor" has been a major boon for Wi-Fi. According to ARCchart, 80% of laptops shipped this year included integrated Wi-Fi adapters. This not only makes Wi-Fi nearly ubiquitous in mobile devices -- it makes Wi-Fi easy to try. Many workers start using built-in Wi-Fi at home, then graduate to hotspots. Once you get a taste of high-speed Internet access, you never go back. By comparison, it's hard to dabble in 3G. Today, you'd need to spend a few hundred bucks for PC card and a service contract with a 3G carrier. Many workers don't have permission to install new hardware on company laptops, or wouldn't dream of going to this trouble. But Verizon has a plan to overcome this barrier: integrated Qualcomm EV-DO modems will become an option in Dell, HP, and Lenovo laptops in 2006. In Europe, Vodafone is said to be working a similar deal with PC OEMs. Integrated modems will encourage mobile professionals to give 3G a try. But 3G still lacks Wi-Fi's interoperability -- for example, Cingular customers can't add EV-DO laptops to existing cellular accounts.

Cost. Wi-Fi hotspots may not be cheap, but 3G services are often more expensive. Today, most hotspot users "pay as you go." Frequent flyers who find this prohibitive can buy "all you can eat" Wi-Fi from companies like Boingo and T-Mobile for $20 to $30 per month. In contrast, Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless unlimited 3G data plans start at $60 per month. If you're the type who needs short bursts of wireless, a few days a month, then "pay as you go" may work well for either Wi-Fi or 3G. If you plan to use wireless extensively in disparate venues, look for a cost-effective roaming plan. In fact, you may want a carrier-independent plan that lets you roam between Wi-Fi and 3G (e.g., Fiberlink, iPass, GoRemote).

Ultimately, I don't think consumers really care which wireless technology they use. Heck, those connections could even be Municipal Wi-Fi or WiMAX. We just want wireless access that's fast enough to work productively, simple enough to use, relatively inexpensive, and truly available everywhere we need it. Is that too much to ask?