I rarely predict, but this year it's easy: With so much in process, it seems straightforward to see what this year in Wi-Fi looks like. You're welcome to say "Ha ha!" on Jan. 1, 2007, where I'm wrong.
802.11n won't be ratified this year. The standards battle will get resolved and a proposal will win the 75 percent supermajority required for moving forward on a draft. Ratification won't happen until 2007. Speed will continue to be pushed, however, and what's sometimes referred to as a new "100 Mbps" standard will start being called a "200 Mbps" standard.
802.11n-like devices will ship year. By third quarter, there will be several chipsets in shipping equipment that incorporate draft-compatible versions of 802.11n in slower flavors. Manufacturers will issue a variety of promises and hedges about future compatibility with the ratified 802.11n spec.
One-button or simple security will appear for home Wi-Fi. Several disparate efforts being brought together into one potential standard at The Wi-Fi Alliance will result in firmware and software updates for tens of millions of existing Wi-Fi devices to allow simple WPA Personal setup.
Techniques to break WPA TKIP keys more efficiently will appear. But the TKIP key will continue to remain worthwhile when used with good passphrases. AES will remain unassailable in 2006.
Municipal Wi-Fi will continue to gain momentum. Hundreds of new RFPs will appear next year and hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent. Battles among incumbents, competitive operators, cities, and non-profits will be waged. But networks will be built. And we'll finally see whether muni-scale networks can deliver on promises, probably within the first quarter of 2006.
Google will not build a national Wi-Fi network. Instead, they will roll out services for municipal-scale Wi-Fi network operators.
San Francisco will probably not have a network. I place the odds on this at about 50 percent that San Francisco's winning network bidder will not begin work in 2006 due to lawsuits or public process.
Transportation Wi-Fi will slowly increase. I don't see any massive rollouts for rail, plane, bus, or ferry Wi-Fi for commuters and business travelers in 2006. Rather, the same steady increase in options will continue especially with cellular 3G becoming more ubiquitous for travelers who need access everywhere--assuming that metal tubes that encase users in buses, ferries, trains, and planes don't prove to be effective barriers.
Wi-Fi hotspots will cross 200,000 worldwide. They're already at roughly 100,000 worldwide today. The trend isn't lessening at either the informal level (adding a Wi-Fi gateway in a coffeeshop) or the top-end (installing a multi-million dollar airport system).
Free and fee hotspots will continue to co-exist, but hotels will increasingly drop fees. This is just a continuation of a trend. We won't see chains of thousands of hotspots drop their fees, but higher-end hotels will move towards the amenity model and stop charging. They may also stop charging for local and long-distance calls.
All consumer electronic categories will have many Wi-Fi-equipped models. It may take until Christmas 2006, but every single category of consumer product will have not just a proof of concept, but many items with Wi-Fi built in. Digital cameras with Wi-Fi might finally reach the consumer level with reasonable features, such as Secure FTP (SFTP) support. The remaining wild card is whether devices will be able to stream wirelessly among any equipment or whether the MPAA will fight back those attempts and require encrypted streams among licensed devices.
Fixed WiMax won't take off, but it will grow. While a lot of fixed WiMax equipment will ship and the certification process will continue to advance, there will be no new large WiMax networks built in the U.S., nor any substantial urban or suburban residential service launched. Rather, the trend of point-to-multipoint fixed broadband wireless will continue to roll on as a business-grade T-1 and multiple T-1 replacement.
Mobile WiMax will still be a non-starter. For all the hype surrounding it, the standard was just finished in the IEEE, certification is far off, and silicon is way early. 2007 probably won't see much happening beyond trials and possibly some deployments outside the U.S., either.
Multiple 3G cell data networks will be in every major U.S. city. We're not far off already, but Cingular, Sprint, and Verizon will have hit all major metro markets with competitive, overlapping service, which should push prices down.
3G operators will offer better Wi-Fi plans and VoIP. Despite Verizon's anti-Wi-Fi advertisements that misstate EVDO's strengths and Wi-Fi's weakness, Verizon will join the Wi-Fi fray. Cingular, Sprint, and Verizon will all offer phones that work over Wi-Fi or cell networks, although seamless handoff is still probably not in the cards.