The trouble with planning way ahead is that the world changes before you execute. The major wireless carriers have been planning their 4th generation LTE (Long Term Evolution) rollouts for a long time – that's how they do things. Now, even as Verizon Wireless is doing an aggressive rollout of LTE, it's becoming clear that LTE networks will not be able to slake the data thirst of a world full of smart phones and tablets. Whoops.
According to Gizmodo, early tests of lightly loaded LTE sites are showing blazing data rates over 10mbps, certainly fast enough for streaming video to a small screen and satisfactory even for larger streams. But, the better it is, the more it'll get used. It's very unlikely that urban sites will be able to handle the number of smart phone and tablet equipped video-streaming customers who will want to use them simultaneously once LTE devices are widespread, Phil Leigh explains part of the problem on insidedigitalmdedia.com:
"…the iPad's screen is seven times larger than that of the iPhone. Thus it is much more likely to be used for streaming video and other rich media applications. Simultaneously its owners will require higher resolution images in order to get a satisfactory viewing experience. Similarly, the iPhone-4's FaceTime video calling feature is expected to be so popular that AT&T Wireless banned it from the company's cellular network."
Since adjacent sites need to avoid stepping on each other's frequencies, you can't just deploy more and more sites, even if the economics were favorable, in order to solve the too-many-customers problem. Penalizing customers for using the data service you just sold them is not a very good long term solution for carriers either. Phil Leigh again:
"AT&T Wireless' decision to impose usage sensitive pricing on iPhones and iPads portends turmoil in The Wireless Internet. Consumers dislike metered pricing and are much less likely to increase usage of services that require it."
So what's the answer? Will we be in a hell of slow downloads and constantly-pausing videos? Will we rarely be able to hear anyone anywhere because of network congestion?
No, those bad things won't happen; it's likely that WiFi will save us. We already see the carriers encouraging us to connect our phones via WiFi or even our home broadband connections. Rumored reasons for AT&T's plan to buy T-Mobile include not only being able to obtain more radio spectrum but also to get control of T-Mobile's vast WiFi network and create more places where AT&T devices can connect automatically without using capacity on the cellular network.
You can deploy a very dense network of WiFi hotspots and make it more and more dense as it gets more users. WiFi hubs are designed to compete constructively with adjacent hubs; WiFi uses radio bandwidth much more efficiently than cellular technologies because WiFi grew up in the wild west of unregulated spectrum, not in the neatly (over)engineered garden of the licensed spectrum, where each company owns its own radio space. WiFi is used mainly at low broadcast power, which turns out to be a good thing when you want to crowd in more transmitters – think lots of little circles with less users in each circle than the big circles with lots of competing users around a cell tower. And WiFi devices being consumer devices are cheap, cheap, cheap so cost is not an obstacle to deploying many of them. As we need more bandwidth for WiFi, it will easily move into the newly freed TV white space because this is also free-for-all unlicensed spectrum.
While the use of WiFi instead of cellular radios gives the big carriers a way around the inadequate capacity of their coming 4G networks, it also diminishes the value of those networks and the expensive spectrum licenses that the carriers already bought. A Telco 2.0 executive briefing asks "Public Wifi: Destroying LTE/Mobile Value?" and answers "By building or acquiring Public WiFi networks for tens of $Ms, highly innovative fixed players in the UK are stealthily removing $Bns of value from 3G and 4G mobile spectrum as smartphone and other data devices become increasingly carrier agnostic."
Which brings us to the Boingo IPO scheduled for this Wednesday; their ticker symbol on NASDAQ will be WIFI. According to Ryan Kim writing on GigaOm, the company operates 325,000 hotspots in more than 100 countries.
"The goal is for Boingo to help carriers offload their data needs on to Boingo's network, helping them stay ahead of the crushing demand for wireless broadband. Even with the rollout of 4G services, Boingo is a good position to participate in the growing consumer appetite for wireless connectivity. The company believes its scalable and global network will provide a reliable way in which to increase capacity for operators."
I haven't done enough research to recommend for or against buying, but it's an interesting proposition. Also ironic that companies like Boingo may prosper by selling the use of free unregulated spectrum to the very companies that own huge, expensive swaths of the regulated space.