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Wi-Fi is not dead

Ericsson's chief marketing officer says he sees Wi-Fi going the way of the public telephone booth, but reporter Marguerite Reardon says the technology still has a long life ahead.

Are Wi-Fi hot spots going the way of public telephone booths?

Johan Bergendahl, chief marketing officer for wireless-equipment maker Ericsson, thinks they are. During his keynote address on Monday at the European Computer Audit, Control and Security Conference in Stockholm, Bergendahl told an audience that as more people use wireless broadband fewer people will use Wi-Fi hot spots in public places.

"Hot spots at places like Starbucks are becoming the telephone boxes of the broadband era," Bergendahl was quoted as saying in a post by the IDG News Service.

Bergendahl argued that wireless broadband is growing faster than mixed or fixed telephony. And that eventually people will have no need to connect to hot spots, because wireless broadband will be baked into their laptops and other devices. And service will be available everywhere.

Of course, these comments should be taken with a pinch of salt. Ericsson sells wireless equipment to cell phone companies. It doesn't make Wi-Fi gear. So it shouldn't come as a shock that the company would publicly slam Wi-Fi, while promoting its own flavor of wireless broadband, called HSPA (High Speed Packet Access).

In some ways, I agree with Bergendahl. Wi-Fi has its limitations. But I don't see the technology fading into the sunset just yet, or going the way of the public telephone booth anytime soon.

The pros and cons of Wi-Fi
It's true that Wi-Fi signals don't travel over long distances, making coverage spotty at best. This also means that because hot spots are often independently run within the confines of a limited space, like coffee shops or airports, there's no seamless, ubiquitous coverage. I'm the first to admit that I'm annoyed when my signal drops and I'm forced to re-sign into wireless hot spots.

Broadband wireless service through a carrier definitely offers wider coverage. And it's more convenient. But it's expensive. In the U.S., Verizon Wireless charges $60 a month for 5GB of downloads per month and $40 a month for a service that allows 50MB of downloads per month. By contrast, many Wi-Fi hot spots are free. And if they aren't free, people can pay by the hour or by the day to use the services, a great option for casual users who need wireless broadband only occasionally.

There are other issues associated with wireless broadband offered through carriers. Because carriers use different technology standards to build networks, access cards from one provider can't be used on another's network. This is one reason why embedding 3G wireless service into laptops hasn't taken off. Consumers don't want to be locked into a single wireless broadband provider the way they are with a cell phone provider.

This could be changing. Qualcomm has introduced a chipset called Gobi that operates on CDMA2000 EV-DO and UMTS HSPA networks worldwide. This could allow laptop makers to sell notebooks with embedded radios that could be used over different networks, theoretically allowing people to roam between networks. Gobi chipsets are expected to start appearing in laptops in the second quarter of 2008.

Another significant reason Wi-Fi isn't going to die anytime soon is because it's already in wide use in millions of end-user devices. And because the technology is standardized and manufactured in bulk, it's relatively cheap. This has helped it become almost a standard feature in any laptop computer sold today. And it's already getting installed on other small handheld devices like music players, such as the iPod Touch from Apple. Handset makers are also including Wi-Fi in their phones. And other consumer electronics makers are embedding Wi-Fi into home entertainment products to eliminate wires.

I agree with Bergendahl that wireless broadband will grow phenomenally in the next few years. But I am not convinced that the rise of 3G or even 4G wireless broadband services means the end of Wi-Fi. In fact, I see the two technologies co-existing.

Even though wireless broadband signals travel over longer distances than Wi-Fi, coverage inside buildings is often poor. Because of this fact, wireless broadband may be used outdoors, while Wi-Fi is used indoors. T-Mobile's Wi-Fi at Home already offers this type of service for its voice customers. Subscribers to the service use Wi-Fi when at home, and the T-Mobile cellular network when outside the home. This hybrid approach could also work well for broadband services. And it would also help carriers better control bandwidth usage on their networks.