Some Hard Facts About Wi-Fi and Its Future

28 thoughts on “Some Hard Facts About Wi-Fi and Its Future”

  1. what surprises me is not how popular wifi is but that it is not more common to have good quality shared networks. for example people living in apartments still tend to have separate internet connection for each residence each with its own router. i would have expected by now the building managers would have had a fiber link installed and blanketed the buildings with wifi that could serve the entire residence. it certainly should be cheaper for the whole that way. i even had expected that places such as gated residential communities would be blanketed in wifi to serve the resident population. and that eventually these networks would be combined to cover entire cities.

    1. Tom

      I wonder if this is something that should be built into the routers themselves in order to get folks to share their networks – or carve our a bit of their bandwidth to share the networks.

      It would be great if this peer to peer sharing technology was open sourced and put in every router. I know this might provide a nice cover in the walkabout areas in a complex and more importantly redundancy.

      Again, I am speaking as a consumer and not an expert on the legal issues around the networks etc.

  2. Absolutely spot on. The only challenge is in the hardware is still spotty. Setting up wireless devices is a challenge and it is still, very difficult for a lay man to set up a wi-fi network. The various protocols, understanding security layers, getting the devices to talk each other and finally the quality of the hardware. Most people don’t get what ‘firmware’ means and ask me what a struggle it has been to try and fix my Belkin N router to talk to my iPhone4.

    While the technology improves and makes for faster and more efficient data transfer speeds, there is clearly work to be done on the hardware front

    1. The Apple devices are easy to setup and they upgrade their own firmware through companion apps for Mac and Windows. They are consumer devices, not IT devices. You plug them in and they work.

  3. Great article, and IMHO, it only touches on half of the equation. This only looks at the network from the outside in – data coming into your mobile device, be it a laptop, tablet, phone, brain, etc. Inside-out (Machine-to-Machine) is just as important.

    You don’t need to be a pundit to realize that the lines between meatspace and cyberspace are blurring. Smart Meters are a massive, kludgy expensive example of this – gathering realtime relevant data and feeding it to a backend. A sweet spot for WiFi implementors is to leverage this demand, by developing new standards for zero-touch configuration and pave the road to more efficient M2M communication. There are some interesting products in this market, like prescription bottles that monitor usage, but they all currently use cellular, or some proprietary system. There’s no reason to have such a chokepoint when WiFi’s become ubiquitous and free.

    1. Adam

      Clearly, I could have gone forever, but then what would I write tomorrow ;-). Anyway you make excellent points. Using cellular as a back-up option is not such a bad idea, especially if we can come to a stage where we can logging into WiFi networks is actually fairly easy.

  4. Hey Om, great data to support what people think has been trending re. device usage on wifi. So I buy the gigethernet wireless replacement use case at home, at work and is relatively static communities. But it would be great to here your thoughts, plus some data, on truely mobile use cases; the commute to work, the town highstreet, the mall, travelling by car. How do you see wifi boosting ubiquitous internet access for broadband services? Do you think 802.11i or u and EAP-SIMs as an example might make fixed broadband a piece of fixed line backhaul with a heterogeneous network for homogeneous coverage? Or do you think the answer will rely on more standards driven protocols

      1. If you’re willing to compromise a little on the hardware end and data coverage areas, Sprint’s Virgin Mobile US has unlimited data on all plans, the cheapest of which is $25 a month.

        On a separate topic, this dovetails a bit with articles I’ve seen over the past month detailing how various carriers (cellular and home) would like to be able to charge more and/or cap data for the types of services that eat up more bandwidth: Hulu, YouTube, etc.

    1. You know that “unlimited data” is an oxymoron… there are no free lunches. Eventually, if you consume too much data at too high a bandwidth, you will pay the extra bulk, or get choked down by your carrier.

  5. Do you think Wi-fi is disruptive to 3G/4G? Because I do. When there will be free wifi hotspots almost everywhere in the world, 4G will only have a marginalized use. But they also need to make it more energy efficient so if you have wifi always on, your phone or tablet will still last at least a whole day.

    1. I dont think it is an either/or situation because I think in the end you have to have both in order to get better wireless broadband. On its own, even 4G isn’t enough to deliver you all the services you want wirelessly in the future.

  6. What about issues with scaling Wi-Fi to a large, simultaneous audience?
    For example, at conferences or in a sports arena. Unreliability will limit what we can do with it.

  7. I have five WiFi devices: iPad, iPod, PS3,Roku box, TiVo. My Kindle is 3G only. I am going to get an AirPrint printer this week, which will make six. I may get an XBox down the road. No laptop.

  8. Keep in mind possible unintended consequences of many device using WiFi in the same living quarters or common areas: a.) radiation exposure, b.) energy / power consumption. The forthcoming IEEE 802.11ac sounds great on paper but how much energy will be required (for the AP, from the device point of view)? Al Gore probably won’t be too happy about this.

  9. Om, this post and the discussion above are some of the best I read on your site lately. I completely subscribe you your view about Wi-Fi, and as you may know Wi-Fi sharing has been the initial vision of WeFi (you actually wrote about us in that context a few times)

    Having grown as a company in parallel to companies like FON and Meraki we have followed all the transitions that you described, and WeFi has changed as well along those lines.

    The fact is that whether they like it or not, Carriers are desperately seeking to give users the desired wireless Internet experience (just as you described), and knowing that 3G/4G technology have no change to keep up with the demand, they realize now that Wi-Fi provides the missing pieces of the puzzle. So we believe their end-game will be to provide a service, transparent to the user, which gets them connected to the best available bandwidth source around, a lot of which will be Wi-Fi networks which are already deployed “in the wild” (and not only “carrier controlled” hotspots like Wayport, T-Mobile etc.)

    So what I foresee is an intertwined ecosystem of Wi-Fi technologies (Meraki-type mesh networks, dual/shared routers like FON’s, manged hotspots as well as a zillion different types of simple low-cost routers) and a smart system controlled by carriers which knows how to navigate and keep the user connected either over 3G/4G or the surrounding Wi-Fi.

  10. The most critical new feature in 802.11ac is Downlink Multi-User MIMO, which allows simultaneous transmission of independent data streams from the AP to multiple clients. A dirty secret of 802.11n is that no matter how sophisticated your AP is (up to 4 antennas), the achievable MIMO data rate is almost always limited by the client devices, such as smartphones, tablets, game consoles, etc., which have one or two antennas at the most. By aggregating transmissions to multiple clients, 11ac will get back the promise of higher-order MIMO that never panned out in 11n, due to the proliferation of clients with limited antenna counts. Also, by serving multiple clients at once, this will greatly alleviate network contention issues associated with having a large number of users served by a single AP.

  11. The sharing capabilities Om describes are already available in routers from Gargoyle, Open Mesh and the newer Buffalo models. Unfortunately most of the sharing is designed for WAN to LAN and not wireless LAN to LAN.

    The opportunity is not merely in enabling wireless clients to share the Internet, but to access resources on the LAN … particularly at venues where Internet is unavailable, unnecessary or unreasonably priced. This is where most of the available routers fall down.

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