Wi-Fi smartphones to dominate

Like the cell phone camera before it, Wi-Fi is quickly becoming a must-have in the mobile phone market, especially for smartphones that live for fast Internet connections.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
2 min read

LAS VEGAS - In the next few years it will be difficult to buy a new smartphone that does not have built-in Wi-Fi for speedy Net access, according to a report that ABI Research and the Wi-Fi Alliance published Tuesday.

Today, about half the smartphones sold have Wi-Fi. By 2014, the forecast goes, about 90 percent of smartphones will offer access to Wi-Fi.

Apple iPhone
The Apple iPhone helped show why it's good for a cell phone to have Wi-Fi. Apple

The big driver for Wi-Fi is bandwidth-intensive multimedia applications, such as graphically intense games and streaming video. The Apple iPhone was among the first devices to show the true benefit of having Wi-Fi. AT&T, the exclusive carrier offering the iPhone in the U.S., has said that iPhone subscribers consume more data than any other people using its wireless service, even other smartphone customers.

And because of these heavy traffic loads on its overburdened 3G network, AT&T is encouraging all its iPhone subscribers to access its more than 20,000 Wi-Fi hot spots for free. The hope is that the company can offload some of the traffic onto the Wi-Fi network by encouraging subscribers to use Wi-Fi for data-intensive activities when they're in range of a hot spot.

"In the age of data-centric multimedia phones, carriers have embraced Wi-Fi technology as a way to offload traffic from licensed spectrum and improve the consumer experience," Michael Morgan, industry analyst for ABI Research, said in a statement. "We are seeing handset users starting to demand Wi-Fi because of its higher data rate and indoor reception benefits."

Even as carriers roll out 4G wireless networks, Wi-Fi will still have a place because it can offer fast Internet access at a relatively low cost for many devices.

While most cell phones today use Wi-Fi technology based on older standards, the newer specification called 802.11n is gaining traction. And by 2012 ABI says it will become the predominant Wi-Fi technology used in mobile handsets. Today 10 smartphones already have 802.11n certification, including four phones by LG Electronics and six phones from Samsung.

The benefit of using 802.11n is that it offers up to five times the download speed of 802.11g. The newer 802.11n also doubles the range of a Wi-Fi hot spot from about 100 meters to about 200 meters.

It also has a few other features built into the specification that will improve the experience for mobile users. For example, since data transmissions are more efficient with 802.11n, battery life lasts longer than with other forms of 802.11 technology. The specification also prioritizes network resources for voice and video applications to improve the performance, which means voice-over-IP calls and streaming video should run more smoothly on devices connected a via an 802.11n hot spot.

And because 802.11n offers higher capacity, it allows more users to connect to a single hot spot at the same time than older forms of Wi-Fi.