Will Wi-Fi hot spots survive WiMax and 3G?

Faster mobile access will lead to more options

Mobile WiMax promises to be fast, cheap and, if Sprint Nextel keeps its word, available across the US by 2009. 3G service, while slower than mobile WiMax, is already widely available. Both technologies are designed to cover wide areas.

By contrast, public Wi-Fi hot spots require you to go to them. That begs the question: Can Wi-Fi hot spots in public places such as coffee shops and airports survive the onslaught of ubiquitous wireless access? And if they do survive, how will they change?

There is a wide divergence of opinion on this point.

"Once the price gets low enough for wireless broadband, why use a Wi-Fi hot spot?" asked Tole Hart, an analyst at Gartner.

"There's still a good future for hot spots," said Jack Gold, principal of J. Gold Associates. "For one thing, 98% of notebooks have Wi-Fi built in."

Hart didn't predict that hot spots will go away, and Gold didn't say that they will dominate mobile access in the future. Rather, while they -- and other analysts and industry figures -- may differ on the details, they do agree on two key points. First, hot spots will be different in the future than they are now. Second, how we access the Internet while mobile, and what we access, will soon start to change.

The realities

In the short term, public Wi-Fi hot spots will continue to be a common way to connect, the experts agree.

"3G is still expensive, and WiMax clearly will take some time," said Peter Jarich, an analyst at Current Analysis Inc.

In particular, he noted, 3G (third-generation) access is priced higher than most consumers want to pay. Typically, operators charge $60 a month with a two-year contract, although lower-priced but more limited plans are available.

In addition, the future of mobile WiMax in the US remains murky, since Sprint and Clearwire, which own the lion's share of WiMax-ready wireless spectrum, recently ended their agreement to jointly offer the service. Sprint is also under pressure from shareholders and Wall Street to scale back its WiMax plans in light of its struggling cellular business.

Until such issues are settled, there's no reason that hot-spot operators should worry, the analysts agreed.

Future changes

Ultimately, however, mobile WiMax will be available, even if a vendor other than Sprint deploys it. The Federal Communications Commission has said that Sprint will lose the spectrum if it doesn't use it, so it could become available to other operators at some point. Plus, other carriers have said they will roll out wireless broadband technology comparable to WiMax, although such deployments aren't expected for at least three years.

So fast, ubiquitous wireless access falls into the "when," not the "if" category. And when it does occur, expect changes in four areas, the analysts said.

Lower prices, more venues. If Sprint or another WiMax vendor provides faster service at lower prices than 3G, expect the cellular operators to respond with lower prices. That, in turn, will lead to lower prices for hot-spot access.

For instance, T-Mobile currently charges about US$10 for a day of access at hot spots in Starbucks and its other venues. Monthly charges from T-Mobile and other providers such as Boingo Wireless and Wayport range from US$20 to US$40 a month.

"Once WiMax kicks in, [hot-spot vendors] will need to get their prices down quite a bit," Gold said. "Plus, it will have to be more available. Today, it's only at places like airports, convention centers, hotels and the like."

More bundles. A second way the other cellular carriers will fight back is to offer aggressive bundles that combine 3G, Wi-Fi hot spots and cellular voice service.

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

David Haskin

Computerworld
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?