I've read several recent Wi-Fi prononents proclaim that Wi-Fi can now be your primary connection, with the cellular network used merely as a backup in the last resort. I disagree. Like many, I do use Wi-Fi a lot but struggle to make use of public and visited private Wi-Fi services. While researching real-world evidence, we unearthed some interesting statistics about today's Wi-Fi usage patterns and discuss what needs to be done to improve the experience when away from home.
The majority of wireless smartphone data goes over Wi-Fi
Crowdsourced data from smartphone monitoring apps reminds us that most of the data delivered to our devices goes over Wi-Fi. This does vary a lot between countries
Mobidia report that both LTE and Wi-Fi data traffic is growing in the US, for both Android and Apple devices as shown in the chart below:
Perhaps that's because it can achieve faster speeds. OpenSignal compare this with cellular performance (averaged across all four network operators). This may not match your personal experience. Almost all of this traffic takes place indoors, where cellular signals may be weaker and higher speeds more difficult to achieve.
But relatively little is used when out and about
Currently well over 90% of smartphone Wi-Fi is used in the home and office. Relatively little data connects through Carrier Wi-Fi. It's something I would have expected to see grow significantly with the advent of HotSpot 2.0, but doesn't seem to be bearing fruit as yet.
Revenues from Wi-Fi are tiny compared with Cellular data. iPass, one of the largest global Wi-Fi ISPs has just 0.2% of the revenues of Verizon Wireless.
Today's public Wi-Fi experience
My own recent experience with Wi-Fi is a mix of pleasure and frustration. At home and in the office, I predominantly use Wi-Fi for data because it's fast and incurs no additional cost. However, when I move around the office or home, I get "stuck" on the original access point and have to manually reset/reconnect to fix the issue. It's far from seamless.
When I visit friends homes, I sometimes find Wi-Fi has automatically connected but it's very much "pot-luck" and unpredictable. This works seamlessly if they use the same wireline broadband supplier as I do, but fails otherwise. I'd need to ask for and enter login details to gain access, manually repeating this on each device. Every day in the shared office, I need to manually connect and accept the terms and conditions before gaining access.
My travels to international events in recent months have also been a mix of surprises and frustration. Some hotels provide free and straightforward access without a password (although this usually means your wireless connection is not encrypted), others insisted on extra payment with log-in each time the device wakes up. Munich airport, like many others, offers "Free Wi-Fi" for a short period but insists on capturing your personal details. Some locations insist on validating this by sending a text message to your phone.
There are two reasons for this:
- From a security point of view, being able to report to the authorities the identity of any specific communication and block access for those abusing the network.
- From an advertising and customer analytics perspective, being able to associate and track usage of your device both now and in the future. Once your ID and MAC address are logged, this can be done whenever Wi-Fi is enabled even if you don't log on to a Wi-Fi network.
When I do get connected, the speed and responsiveness varies tremendously. Given that most of the time I'm not paying for it, I'll tolerate that to some extent.
Below, OpenSignal attempted a correlation between hotel room rates and Wi-Fi speeds (visit their website for an interactive version of this chart).
Speeds in US national retail outlets also vary considerably. Again, data below from OpenSignal
These do show that when connected, Wi-Fi can provide adequate and useful service, but it's unpredictable and often difficult to connect.
So while I read about how some advocate that Wi-Fi can become the only network you need, with perhaps a little cellular service when you are outside, I remain unconvinced.
The three key capabilities public Wi-Fi requires to succeed
What's missing are:
- Seamless access: The smartphone has to seek out and connect to compatible Wi-Fi hotspots, logging in with secure certificates or passwords behind the scenes. HotSpot 2.0 can achieve this where my cellular operator has a roaming agreement in place, but there are many private venues and other locations that seem unlikely to use that feature.
- Security: Connecting without a password usually means the wireless link isn't encrypted. Anyone with easily accessible software can intercept and watch the same screens you are viewing on your browser in real-time. Even when connecting securely, I've found that some WISPs actively break the end-to-end encryption so they can track what Google searches and similar. It's this insidious personal tracking that I'm unhappy about.
- Quality: The technical capabilities of the latest Wi-Fi specifications are phenomenal. Achieving high performance requires a combination of more sophisticated Access Points, compatible devices, some RF planning, good installation and adequate backhaul. Some locations can be swamped and give virtually no service while others can surpass indoor cellular service.
Why Hotspot 2.0 won't solve the problem completely
The Wi-Fi Alliance and WBA have been promoting the use of Hotspot 2.0 and Passpoint as the solution to increase public Wi-Fi takeup. These provide seamless access to compatible hotspots. The WBA has setup roaming procedures which allow any Wi-Fi network to interwork as if visiting another cellular network. This addresses authentication (checking who you are), authorisation (permitting access) and billing (paying for usage).
The WBA point to a number of cellular operators who have embraced this new standard and have Wi-Fi roaming agreements setup. This hasn't reached my UK operator yet and isn't nearly as widespread as you might expect. Speaking to one US operator, their view was to setup roaming agreements on a commercial basis – they didn't seem to be interested in simply enabling free access to a Wi-Fi network where the venue owner is happy to provide that.
Proprietary end-to-end solutions
A few companies are offering their own solutions to overcome these three issues. Devicescape, Birdstep and a few others claim to surpass what could be achieved using Hotspot 2.0 alone.
1) Seamless Access: Public Wi-Fi includes Carrier Wi-Fi together with private services offered free of charge by venue owners, from the smallest coffee shop to the largest shopping mall. Often these businesses are more than happy for guests to login freely, perhaps with some restrictions on time and/or bandwidth. Sophisticated solutions exist which capture those venues, validate login details and establish a database of potential sites. Devicescape's Curated Database with 20 million sites is an example of what can be achieved – far greater than the few million Carrier Wi-Fi hotspots alone. Various clever techniques are then used to log into the access point in the background, without the need for manual acceptance of terms and conditions or entering personal details.
2) Security: These systems can provide an encrypted link (a VPN) back through the host network operator, avoiding the risk of interception over the air or within the Wi-Fi ISP. Not only does this provide greater security to the end user, it also allows the host operator to gain more insight into where and when their customers are using data. David Nowicki, CMO Devicescape, tells me that consumer research shows that customers are willing to pay for the benefit of added security in these cases.
3) Quality: You rarely know what level of service to expect after connecting to a new hotspot. There are many variables affecting service quality. The best way is to measure this from the device before making use of it. Here again, these third party solutions actively test the quality of the connection in the background before seamlessly switching over to it. They can even be aware of different types of App and retain the connection rather than disrupt the service – essential for many streaming Apps.
Wi-Fi offload can provide a better experience for users and release capacity on more expensive macrocell networks. Ultimately, we all pay for the cellular systems so this benefits us with reduced charges and/or greater access.
But it's clear that today, the vast majority of Wi-Fi usage is at home/office in very predictable and controlled circumstances. Public Wi-Fi is still very hit-and-miss. Much more than simply Hotspot 2.0 will be needed to increase takeup, and we'll still rely on greater investment in the cellular network to meet our expectations for an always-on, always connected society.