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MICHAEL HARRIS
2011-02-06
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Wireless Carriers Offloading Data Traffic to Wi-Fi

BY MICHAEL HARRIS

Wi-Fi is the most popular high-speed wireless Internet access method for computer users. Soon, the same may be true for mobile phones. Why? Because Wi-Fi is faster, cheaper and more broadly available than other mobile data technology. In the coming years, more U.S. mobile users could access the Internet through Wi-Fi than cell towers.

Sound crazy? Consider this. Today, there are 10 times more Wi-Fi “base stations” in the U.S. than cell towers. More than 30 million homes have a Wi-Fi access point with a broadband Internet connection. Outside the home, Wi-Fi is available at work and school. Additionally, there are more than 93,000 public Wi-Fi “hotspots” in the U.S.  More than 55 million cell phones sold in the U.S. this year will be Wi-Fi capable.

These trends are poised to accelerate faster than a Wi-Fi connection. According to Coda Research, the portion of U.S. homes with Wi-Fi access will top 70 percent within 5 years. In 2015, two out of three mobile handsets sold will include Wi-Fi, and at that time, 80 percent of the projected 149 million owners of mobile devices with Wi-Fi on their device will use it.

Wi-Fi 101

Wi-Fi, an abbreviation for “wireless fidelity,” is a brand name for wireless networking technology based on IEEE 802.11 technology standards. About 800 million new Wi-Fi capable devices are manufactured each year, including everything from routers and laptop computers to video game consoles, mobile phones, MP3 players, printers, digital cameras and TV set-top boxes. Wi-Fi is used to link these devices together, as well as to local area networks and the Internet through a variety of service providers.

Wi-Fi is widely used in homes, businesses and school campuses, as well as public hotspot locations, such as cafes, hotels, airports and train stations. Wi-Fi can even be found installed on street lights, utility poles and aerial cable TV lines.

The technology operates in unlicensed wireless spectrum in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequency ranges. There are several types of Wi-Fi in use. The most common include 802.11b and 802.11g, which offer a maximum data rate of 54 Mbps and a coverage range of 100 feet indoors and 300 feet outdoors. The newest flavor, 802.11n, more than doubles Wi-Fi’s range and boosts maximum available speeds to a whopping 450 Mbps.

Wi-Fi Meets Mobile

Skyrocketing data usage on mobile networks is forcing the Wi-Fi issue. According to Morgan Stanley Research, through the end of 2013, mobile data traffic is expected to rise by a 131 percent compounded annual growth rate (CAGR). Consumers are eager to save on climbing mobile data charges. Carriers are interested in ways to reduce mobile network congestion while avoiding expensive cell site expansions.

For consumers, Wi-Fi means faster download speeds on their mobile devices at a lower cost. 3G mobile technologies available today on mobile carrier networks are far slower than Wi-Fi. The maximum download speed of an EVDO data connection on a CDMA mobile network is 3.1 Mbps. On GSM mobile networks, the maximum is 14.4 Mbps with HSPA. The newer HSPA+ boosts that number to 42 Mbps, but each one fails to match the 54 Mbps capacity of Wi-Fi with 802.11g.

Even much-touted, leading-edge 4G mobile technologies, such as LTE and WiMAX, trail Wi-Fi’s trajectory. While LTE offers an impressive maximum download speed of 100 Mbps, it offers less than a quarter of the capacity of 802.11n.

Not only is Wi-Fi faster, it can also be cheaper for consumers. A study by Informa found 45 percent of mobile data usage happens within a customer’s home. For consumers with a Wi-Fi enabled broadband Internet connection at home, free mobile data access is available for the entire family. That compares to paying AT&T or Verizon $25 or more per month, per mobile phone for 3G data coverage. For a family of four mobile data users, switching to Wi-Fi delivers more than $1,000 in annual savings.

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