Digital Convergence: On the Horizon?
June 26, 2003
Will we see a merging of WiFi devices and cellular technology? Eventually, says a panel of industry experts at the 80211 Planet Conference & Expo -- but don't expect to see it anytime soon.
Wireless is wireless, right? Not where WiFi and cellular technologies are concerned.
Though consumers and enterprises may express a preference for using a single wireless device that can move seamlessly between WiFi and cellular networks, the wireless industry isn't ready to offer this capability on a broad scale, according to members of the "Business Issues for Converged Networks" panel at today's 80211 Planet Conference & Expo.
"Customers today will pay for coverage. They're less likely to pay for cross-network mobility," said Kevin Jackson, co-founder and vice president of marketing and product management at Tatara Systems. "We're not yet near a system where you can be driving along and your phone service is handed off from an access point at Starbucks to a cell-phone tower."
"There's no single technology to fit everyone's needs," said Russ Freed, CTO of Bridgewater Systems.
Technical issues aside, another roadblock to wireless ubiquity is the lack of a compelling business reason for mobile operators to wholeheartedly enter the WiFi space. "It's not a business model that makes sense for the mobile operator," admitted Jackson, who pointed out that mobile operators have spent billions on near-ubiquitous wireless service blanketing large areas. The same model can't work yet for 80211-based devices, since all 80211 coverage is essentially very local. An example would be T-Mobile, which is implementing WiFi hotspots as a venture separate from its cellular service.
But what T-Mobile does offer -- which the panelists agreed was useful for consumers -- is a single bill for the various services. In this way convergence is happening on one level for consumers, and as more WiFi vendors adopt back-end systems that support and interact with other cell-oriented billing systems, consumers will be closer to digital convergence.