Wi-Fi Still Booming

By David Needle

November 29, 2005

Sales of chipsets that enable wireless connectivity topped 100 million units this year.

Wi-Fi, the wireless technology that lets you surf the Web by the pool and make stock trades at the local Starbucks, is growing by leaps and bounds.

A record-breaking 100 million Wi-Fi chipsets shipped this year, according to data just released by In-Stat and the Wi-Fi Alliance. The two groups expect total shipments for the year to top 120 million. In-Stat said sales of Wi-Fi chipsets have grown an average of 64 percent over the past five years; the research firm forecasts that sales will rise to 200 million units annually by 2008.

"As far as we can tell, the numbers from In-Stat and other research firms look very positive for the next few years, due to Wi-Fi moving beyond core PC applications and into consumer electronics and mobile phones," Frank Hanzlik, managing director of the not-for-profit Wi-Fi Alliance, told internetnews.com. "The cell phone industry sells about 800 million units, so if even a small portion of those have Wi-Fi, it adds up."

Wi-Fi has seen growth at the retail level at coffee shops and restaurants -- and even in whole communities. San Francisco recently accepted bids from Google and others, with a goal set by the city's mayor of making Wi-Fi available there for free or very low cost. Google has also offered to make Wi-Fi service available throughout its hometown of Mountain View, Calif.

"Initiatives like what Google is doing are very disruptive, but personally, I find it very exciting for the industry to have them pushing new models of service that can reach a larger set of the population," said Hanzlik. Broadband and other service providers have protested such plans, insisting they can offer better levels of service than free Wi-Fi.

While free service is growing, Hanzlik said that doesn't necessarily mean the demise of pay Wi-Fi services. "There are absolutely fee-based models for road warriors and others that make sense. We don't see either free or fee-based Wi-Fi diminishing for the next few years."

Years ago, adding Wi-Fi capability to notebooks was a pricey option, but its inclusion by notebook makers adds little to the cost today. And for people with older notebooks looking to upgrade, Hanzlik noted that he's seen ads for Wi-Fi cards for as little as $9.95. He estimated more than 90 percent of all notebooks shipped today are Wi-Fi enabled.

Wi-Fi is still known in some circles by its original name, 802.11. The Wi-Fi Alliance hired a naming firm, which came up with the more consumer-friendly Wi-Fi moniker. The alliance also certifies products as Wi-Fi compatible, which Hanzlik says has been key to helping the technology's acceptance, giving consumers assurance that what they are buying will work. The group's Web site has a list of products that are certified as Wi-Fi compatible, along with other information on the technology.

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