Public Wi-Fi in a death spiral

You have to have a lot of skepticism about all the promises to blanket the country with Wi-Fi. I've said it before, but it bears repeating: The concept of public Wi-Fi, with the possible exception of airport use, will die a slow death.

SBC Communications, a major US carrier and majority owner of Cingular Wireless, is jumping into the Wi-Fi "we will have 20,000 hot spots" game, along with Cometa Networks, which also promises 20,000 hot spots. SBC calls it FreedomLink.

Jeff Belk, vice president of marketing at Qualcomm, the patent holder for all CDMA (Code-Division Multiple Access) chips, says, "At some point, you have to have a bit of skepticism."

I go one step further and say you have to have a lot of skepticism about all these promises to blanket the country with Wi-Fi.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: The concept of public Wi-Fi, with the possible exception of airport use, will die a slow death. I am forced to sit in an airport, so I might as well connect while I'm there. However, I won't eat at McDonald's, and I have no intention of finding one in order to get into my network. I'm also not looking for the nearest Barnes and Noble bookstore to do the same.

SBC says it is partnering with Wayport, which already has 650 hot spot venues around the country. As Belk rightly points out, in aggregate that covers about one square mile of the continental United States.

Performance is always an issue in the debate between wide area access and Wi-Fi. SBC claims "users could experience speeds between 2Mbps and 5Mbps between access points and their Wi-Fi-enabled devices."

But, SBC also says it will use where available its DSL or T1 connections as the backhaul. DSL performance is far less than 2Mbps, more like 600Kbps to 1Mbps on average, at least for my DSL connection, and T1 speed is about 1.5Mbps. And isn't performance only as fast as the slowest link?

In the meantime, Verizon is beginning its roll out the next generation of 3G, 1xEVDO (Evolution Data Only) network with plans to light up San Diego and Washington, DC, this year. Belk tells me during a test of EVDO in Washington he was rolling down the interstate at superhighway speeds and had between 400Kbps to 700Kbps performance throughout the 25 miles travelled. A Verizon spokesperson claimed only 600Kbps for the new network, saying the company doesn't want to overpromise. Ah, nothing like a little humility to warm the heart.

My guess is that by 2006 -- the year by which most of the Wi-Fi hot spot providers promise what amounts to ubiquitous coverage -- most hot spots will be owned and operated by either the cellular carriers or the RBOCs (regional Bell operating companies). SBC is already promising "deeply discounted pricing for customers who combine FreedomLink with other SBC services and packages."

For wireless carriers, encouraging Wi-Fi is a business scenario that makes sense. If you are paying a flat fee for your cellular service, whether or not you use it regularly, the carriers make money, Belk notes.

Seamless switching between networks remains a vague promise. However, Qualcomm is pressing ahead with its 7000 series chip sets that will enable devices to combine all flavours of CDMA with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS.

If you could get, let's say, 200Kbps to 400Kbps performance at a $US50 per month subscription rate, would you give up your Wi-Fi service, albeit faster, in favor of a wide-area data card from a carrier with far greater coverage? Send me email and let me know.

Schwartz is an editor at large in InfoWorld US’ news department. Send letters for publication in Computerworld NZ to Computerworld Letters.

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