WiFi: The Real Threat to the Mobile Carriers

WiFi.Logo.100px Having just come out from behind the rocks of West Virginia and spent all yesterday traveling, I arrived home to find that it has been confirmed that Skype will be launching an application on the iPhone tomorrow. The major point coming out of the announcement, aside from the conversation feature set, is that Skype for iPhone will require WiFi access to the Internet. A masterful stroke on Skype’s part, especially after my experience over the past ten days that involved 3200 km of driving, mostly on U.S. Interstates, and nine nights of lodging. Some key bullets to back this up:

  • AT&T is just not a reliable 3G wireless network – full stop. I have reported on this previously involving trips to California and Nevada; Om confirmed it recently when he switched from iPhone and BlackBerry Bold on AT&T to Blackberry 8900 Curve on T-Mobile.
  • When the best I can find is one bar (and not always) at a major tourist destination with over 2 million visitors per year, Skype could not rely on AT&T to deliver anything close to the current experience Skype and iSkoot are having on the 3 networks in nine countries.
  • T-Mobile actually had more bars than AT&T on Hilton Head Island but only two at best; of course an iPhone will not work over T-Mobile.
  • AT&T coverage along the Interstates varied from zero to full 3G, but with the latter only near major cities (as to be expected). It was the intermittent 2G/EDGE coverage along the Interstates that was very frustrating. (I can drive along Ontario’s major freeways with no service interruptions, whether 2G or 3G.)
  • WiFi access points are becoming pervasive. Every hotel along the route was advertising high speed Internet connectivity (usually WiFi); most restaurants also had WiFi access, including one at a New York State Thruway rest stop. Our primary lodging had individual access points for each unit.
  • I used my Boingo account at one overnight hotel for access without a hotel WiFi charge.

My WiFi experiences during the week (all at no additional cost):

  • the major connection for both my Windows laptop and MacBook at our accommodation
  • Making Skype video and voice calls from the Mac Book
  • Downloading and installing the final release of SlingPlayer Mobile for BlackBerry
  • Updating iPhone applications
  • Following an NHL hockey game of interest via SlingPlayer on my BlackBerry Bold using my NHL Center Ice cable subscription
  • Making Skype calls and PSTN calls via Truphone for iPhone (but with echo cancellation issues on the Skype call and termination issues when calling the PSTN).
  • With Boingo, avoiding additional WiFi charges at one of our overnight stops during the trip down.

Not only did WiFi make these applications possible; there were no (Rogers) roaming charges for a Canadian traveling in the U.S. At $6/MB (and when I had an AT&T signal), I limited my use on wireless GSM networks to checking GMail headers, following Twitter via SocialScope and, during our trip home, finalizing a hotel reservation as we neared our overnight destination (and this exercise involved waiting for coverage at some points as we traveled along the I-79 through West Virginia’s mountains).

Boingo will be a major benefactor of this trend; their relationships with major hotel chains, airports and restaurants contribute to this trend and provide an account that minimizes charges. Having clients on Macs, Windows PC’s, Nokia smartphones and, currently in alpha phase, BlackBerry again improves the user experience making the technology transparent to the calling protocol.

One difficulty continues with WiFi: access at high usage locations such as conventions where capacity limitations come into play.  Ultimately it reinforces that WiFi still needs to address scalability issues.

Bottom line: WiFi is stealthing its way significantly into the wireless picture for fixed point access to the Internet by road warriors. Of course its speed and robustness features are additional benefits.

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About Jim Courtney

Bringing over thirty years' experience in the sales, marketing and management of cutting edge technology businesses.

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7 Responses to WiFi: The Real Threat to the Mobile Carriers

  1. Michael Leuker April 2, 2009 at 10:17 pm #

    An interesting perspective for the US, but one completely tied to the mediocre 3G services available in the country.

    From a German and Japanese perspective I can say that WiFi is completely irrelevant in both countries when it comes to VoIP communications and 3G clearly is the way to go… no matter whether or not some providers forbid this in their TOS (they do not block actively).

    I get full signal strenght even in the smaller cities and reach data throughput rates of 2-3 Mbps on average. WiFi support is patchy at best in Germany and practically non-existant in Japan, it does not support proper handover and users can suffer from network congestion and bad signal quality on a hotspot just as well as over 3G.

    The only time that I am using my phone's WiFi feature is when I want to share 3G access with other people or when I have to connect to the company network for intranet access.

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