Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Why cell phone providers will render mobile Wi-Fi meaningless

This week I'm in Monterey, California, attending the Internet Librarian conference. The conference is -- surprise -- at the Monterey Conference Center, which is served by two connected hotels, the Portola Plaza Hotel, and the Marriott.

So we check into the Portola, and they offer in-room high-speed Internet access via Ethernet. So I sign up -- ten bucks a day. To prove my geekness, I then go to a nearby Staples and buy a Netgear access point and set up my own Wi-Fi access. Takes a little finagling to clone my laptop's MAC address, but soon I've got Wiggins Wireless Monterey operational.

Next day, I find that the conference center -- connected to the hotel, a 50 foot walk from the lobby -- offers Wi-Fi, which they want me to sign up for. Another $10 per day.

Then, I go to the adjacent (connected by hamster trail) Marriott, where some sessions are held -- and they have their own Wi-Fi network, available for -- you guessed it -- $10 a day. So they collectively want me to spend $30 a day for high-speed Internet access, when one event spans a few hundred feet of conjoined conference space. Four days at the conference, times $30 = $120. Give me a break!

What would it be like if you had to sign up with a local cell provider every time you moved 100 yards? The cell phone industry figured out the roaming problem 20 years ago. My Verizon phone works just fine in any of these buildings -- or anywhere in California. Wi-Fi access on the road, by contrast, is a Balkanized market, with each local hack provider making deals with each building or space. It's a friggin' mess. Wi-Fi is much talked-about, and very useful -- in environments where an organization controls the airspace on a corporate or university campus. Road warrior Wi-Fi is a hit-or-miss hodge-podge, more suited to ham radio operators than serious business travellers.

And the cell providers are going to eat those local Wi-Fi posers for lunch. My old 1xRTT service from Verizon offers ubiquitous Internet access -- anywhere the Verizon network works -- for $80 a month. T-Mobile offers a similar service, albeit with much poorer coverage, for $30 a month. I don't have to whip out a credit card and sign up with the Cannery Row Tin Can Wi-Fi Company every time I move from building to building.

Suddenly it dawns on me: the cell providers will be the winners when it comes to mobile Internet access. Wi-Fi is for someone you have an ongoing relationship with: your employer, your public library, or the sysadmin of your home network.

1 comment:

jzeeff said...

I tend to agree. The cellular providers have the
infrastructure, technology will advance and speeds will get better. I'm suprised that the we haven't seen more use of the existing cellular towers for wifi. Spectrum/bandwidth is a problem and the use of unlicensed spectrum provides more.

Perhaps more wifi providers will get organized and provide roaming agreements.