2010 in Wi-Fi: the Year in Review - Page 3

By Lisa Phifer

December 21, 2010

Going mobile

Large or small, nearly every business today has some type of mobility initiative underway. Emerging consumer electronic devices have contributed to this trend, along with this year's newest generation of consumer smartphones, from iPhone 4 to Droid X and Galaxy S.

According to In-Stat, the number of Wi-Fi-enabled devices will continue to grow over the next five years, jumping from over 550 million in 2009 to nearly 1.7 billion in 2015. By 2014, over 500 million phones with embedded Wi-Fi are projected to ship, while e-Reader Wi-Fi attach rates are expected to reach 88 percent.

DeBeasi observed that enterprises have begun to report that the number of Wi-Fi devices per human is greater than one. "In some cases, humans [now] carry two or three active Wi-Fi devices. This trend is going to continue. It will create greater demand for the Wi-Fi network. It will also create more co-channel interference," he said.

Although mobile broadband networks grew faster with "4G" deployments in 2010 - such as Verizon Wireless' LTE launch - carriers continue to struggle with capacity and demand. One recent study by Arieso found that 3G mobile data usage roughly doubled each year since the iPhone's introduction in 2007, with Android phones now creating even more data traffic.

According to vonNagy, "As cellular carriers [in general] and AT&T specifically struggled to keep up with 3G data demands, they increasingly changed their mindset [about] Wi-Fi hotspots from competitive technology to complementary service," he said.

"Rollout and use of Wi-Fi hotspots grew at amazingly sharp rate [in 2010] ... with renewed interest in making Wi-Fi a ubiquitous access technology across locales," said vonNagy. "In 2011, look for additional Wi-Fi hotspot rollout by cellular carriers, as well as retail establishments attempting to attract and influence consumer purchasing habits."

Mathias also sees growing carrier interest in Wi-Fi, but for products materializing in a somewhat different form. "Wi-Fi remains the only wireless technology capable of supporting the mobile triple play. And while the current crop of 4G (marketing definition here) technologies could in theory handle anything reasonable the user desires, the carrier networks lack the capacity to guarantee any kind of service," he said. Mathias expects to see renewed and accelerating interest in carrier Wi-Fi, especially in high-population-density areas. "There's no alternative."

Peering into Wi-Fi's future

Finally, one bit of 2010 Wi-Fi news with more spark than substance: those so-called "white spaces."

White spaces are unused bits of spectrum that existed between analog TV channels, as well as channels vacated during the transition to digital TV. In September, the FCC released white spaces for unlicensed use - the first new swath of unlicensed spectrum to become available in 25 years. This announcement was quickly following by press predictions that this lower-frequency unlicensed spectrum would lead to "Wi-Fi on Steroids."

However, Mathias predicts that Wi-Fi will have no impact at all on the "White Spaces" in 2011. "Despite all kinds of reports to the contrary, Wi-Fi has nothing to do at all at present with the white spaces," he said. "We'll have to wait and see if the Wi-Fi Alliance comes up with anything here. Regardless, that won't be anytime soon."

Ultimately, we'll all have to wait to see what 2011 bring for Wi-Fi and its wireless cousins, including WiGig 60 GHz Wi-Fi and the Wi-Fi Alliance's newly-completed WiDirect. But if 2010 is any indication, we're likely to see continued slow but steady progress towards broader Wi-Fi adoption, availability, and integration, as well as further strides towards more efficient - and more cost effective - WLAN operation.

Lisa Phifer owns Core Competence, a consulting firm focused on business use of emerging network and security technologies. Over the years, Lisa has had the pleasure of meeting and working with many WLAN experts, several of whom graciously shared their insights for this article. A hearty thank you goes out to guest contributors Devin Akin, Paul DeBeasi, Andrew vonNagy, Craig Mathias, and Rohit Mehra.
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