When worlds collide: The convergence of 3G and Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi was supposed to spell doom for 3G, but things have changed. Analysts are currently predicting convergence of the two technologies.

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Not so long ago, Wi-Fi was going to be the big bad wolf that blew away any hopes of widespread 3G technology implementation. As dropping prices and ease of use hurtled Wi-Fi in popularity, speculation ran rampant that wireless LANs would obviate the need for next-generation cellular networks.

"In the old days of megalomania from the networks, they thought they were going to have everything to themselves," says Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing at Gartner, a research company based in Stamford, Conn. "Then along came Wi-Fi." Wi-Fi did slow down 3G implementation, says Dulaney, and cellular networks have generally ceded indoor network coverage to Wi-Fi.

But now -- to switch analogies completely -- it looks as though the lion will lie down with the lamb. The two technologies are being touted as complementary, and many experts are predicting a converged scenario in which users take advantage of both to stitch together a mobile coverage umbrella.

"What makes them complementary is the simple fact that each offers strength where the other is weak," says Kevin Burden, program manager of mobile devices at IDC, a research company based in Framingham, Mass.

Wide area 3G technology offers connectivity over a very large area, but its access speed is relatively slow compared with T1 lines and the better types of connection. Wi-Fi, on the other hand, hooks users up to a very high speed connection but has very limited coverage, which confines it to smaller areas such as airports, coffee shops and corporate conference rooms.

Vendors are jumping on this theory to propose a scenario in which mobile workers could log on via a variety of devices, initiate an online session, and be able to move seamlessly from one kind of coverage to the other without any interruption to their service. For example, a salesperson might check e-mail via Wi-Fi from a local coffee shop and then double-check a sales pitch via 3G coverage just prior to heading into an appointment, all without interrupting the data session.

While many analysts say that Wi-Fi and 3G will eventually converge, there are several issues that need to be resolved before the concept is widely available. Some of the big sticking points include:

Hardware issues:
In order to take advantage of both 3G and Wi-Fi, users must have devices that support both technologies and thus far, there are few to be had. That's changing as companies such as Broadcom and Philips Semiconductor bring to market low-power chips that will enable the use of Wi-Fi on smaller portable devices, such as cell phones and PDAs. "The situation is not exactly 'build it and they will come,'" says Will Strauss, principal analyst at Forward Concepts, a research company in Tempe, Ariz. "When the market demand is there, carriers will do it, and that'll be when cell phones come equipped with Wi-Fi." He expects to see such products in the first quarter of 2004.

Billing issues:
One of the biggest sticking points isn't about the technology, but rather how to charge for it. Burden explains it this way: "If you're in the local Starbucks paying for service, it's through a vendor like Cometa," he says. 3G carriers, however, have yet to figure out how to do a seamless handoff between a Wi-Fi network and 3G when it comes to figuring out the billing.

What will pique users' interest, Strauss says, is a plan that offers a single price for multiple options, such as broadband, dial-up, wide area and access to local hot spots. "They want a single price for unlimited use for any network they want to connect to," he says. The problem lies in getting the various carriers to work together. Strauss predicts that it will take five years to get national plans going."

Market demand issues:
Cell carriers are eager to find a service offering "that will provide a revenue stream over and above voice connections," says Strauss. Using cell phones for data connections could be an answer to their prayers, but it's a chicken and egg scenario: Will market demand drive the availability of this converged technology, or will the converse hold true?

For Burden, converged mobile devices must first find a common form factor and gain wide stream acceptance before data connectivity becomes a truly mobile phenomenon. He's betting that the cell phone form factor will be the winning bet. "We need a concept that slims the form factor into something that's acceptable by the mass market," he says, "and the phone form factor is the mass market norm." Once that hits, he expects the market to take off. "Data and voice converging is very much in its infancy, but we expect more converged devices to sell in 2003 than handheld devices for the very first time."

3G issues:
"The fact is, 3G isn't quite here yet. It's in use in Japan, but domestically it hasn't progressed beyond trials in the western United States," says Burden.

It will still happen, but its advent has been slow. "I think what's happened is that a lot of people think that the need for 3G has lessened because we do have Wi-Fi. It will still happen, but will come out later in the technology cycle than originally thought," says Strauss.

The convergence of 3G and Wi-Fi may sound far enough away as to be inconsequential -- but the reality is that sooner or later, users will demand constant coverage. "People are getting use to having constant access," says Burden. "You can't go into a Starbuck's without seeing somebody accessing the Web. It's becoming more commonplace, and soon people will start expecting to have the capability to be able to do where no matter where they are." And once they do, converged Wi-FI/3G coverage will be waiting.

About the author: Carol Hildebrand is a freelance writer in Wellesley, Mass.

This was first published in October 2003

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