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« NY Times Biffs It on Wi-Fi Conference Overload | Main | Kein Freies Mittagessen: Free Hotspots in Europe »

December 31, 2010

The Year Wi-Fi Disappeared

2010 seems to be the year that Wi-Fi became part of the air we breathe: This blog is an unbelievable 9 years, 8 months old. And it's almost unnecessary. Don't cry for me: I have plenty of other writing to occupy my time. But I'd tie the drop in volume of posts here, and the declining traffic to this site over the last three years, to the fact that Wi-Fi generally works well, is built into to nearly everything, and is available in most public places, as well as service being free—or bundled (in the US, Canada, and parts of Europe and Asia) into most smartphone mobile service plans.

When I started writing this blog, 802.11b was the only standard in wide use, the Wi-Fi Alliance had the wonky name of Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA), and an 802.11b base station cost at least $300. That for a whopping 10 Mbps Ethernet port, to push a few Mbps over the air. No laptops came with Wi-Fi built in (Apple was selling an add-on internal card for some laptops and desktops), and you had to mess with driver installation and tweaking.

Here's what I wrote on 9 April 2001:

The proliferation of public space wireless access may transform how people work. It will provide an almost seamless high-speed link between office, home, and road—from home to airport to in flight to airport to hotel to conference center.

Is this good? Will it make folks happier and more efficient? Probably not. But it's a reality that I want to track.

Now, of course, a base station can be under $50 and perform 50 times better, gigabit Ethernet is the rule (with a few exceptions), and you'd be hard pressed to buy smartphones, handhelds, slates, netbooks, and laptops without Wi-Fi soldered right in.


That's a good thing. I've spent an inordinate amount of time in the last 9+ years writing about stuff that didn't work, instead of things that did. I documented products that failed, standards that were released before being fully baked, incompatible approaches that could ruin Wi-Fi, and the near-complete collapse of privately funded municipal wireless networks.

The last three years has been a relief, even as I've seen fewer and fewer people come to the site. I write more about achieving positive results, and have had enormously fewer questions on why something doesn't work. With a huge increase in mobile Wi-Fi usage, you would think we'd see more problems. Instead, it mostly works, most of the time, for most everyone.

Most of the people I know who buy a Wi-Fi router take it home, remove it from its box, plug it in, walk through a wizard to configure it, and are done. That's it. 802.11n routers increased coverage areas by enough that most homes need just a single well-placed device, removing a bit source of base station returns. (I expect returns remain in the low double-digit percentages at big-box electronic retailers, because that's the rate seen for most electronic gear. Several years ago, Wi-Fi routers had a 30-plus percent return rate.)

And with more devices sporting 3G network connections, as well as the spread of the MiFi and similar 3G/4G-to-Wi-Fi routers, the old hunt for a local wireless signal isn't nearly as urgent as it used to be.

The Switch to Free

I suppose the biggest change I've recorded from end to end is the transition in the US from for-fee to free hotspots in airports, hotels, and coffeeshops and restaurants. I spent weeks in late 2000 and early 2001 researching this February 2001 New York Times story, The Web, Without Wires, Wherever. (The Times archives are out of whack at the moment; this version repeats text and has odd formatting.)

Starbucks was the earliest national firm to get into the market, and it seemingly never considered offering the service at no cost at the start, because it wanted a partner to handle all the complexity, and didn't want to pay to operate the service itself. McDonald's entered the market (after a talent show of Wi-Fi providers in which all the losers shut down or sold their networks) with the notion of hybrid service: free to customers, free with promotions, and relatively cheap for everyone else.

Starbucks switched a few years ago to a complicated "two hour a day free with purchase sort of" model. (So complicated, it took me several calls, email, and three articles to explain it all at the launch in 2007.) Both McDonald's and Starbucks went entirely free in 2010. They, along with Barnes & Noble, and some other national chains, represent the prevailing trend of free service. Some cafés ask you to request a password or make a purchase, but free Wi-Fi is now available in so many cafés, restaurants, and retail venues, it would be hard to imagine someone adding Wi-Fi attempting to charge for it. (There's the countervailing minor trend of coffeeshops turning off Wi-Fi or banning all electronic devices, which I wrote about in this Economist piece in August.)

Starbucks latest move in October to light up the Starbucks Digital Network is a trend to watch. By providing rich in-store content, not just another lame portal with weather reports and advertising, Starbucks might have something real to offer regular visitors that brings them into stores.

Airports and hotels, likewise, didn't initially cotton to offer service at no cost. Both kinds of venues lumped Wi-Fi in with phone calls and other profit centers. If people wanted to have Internet access, it should be a revenue generator. As more travelers came equipped with 3G service, though, hotels and airports realized free Wi-Fi could sway how people traveled and where they stayed. Few revenue figures are available for hotels; airports released a bit of information about revenue and expense. But it seemed clear that if the trendline is heading way down, it becomes more expensive to offer a service for a fee than to bear the cost and turn it into a necessary and expected amenity, like cable TV in a hotel or bathrooms at an airport. You budget for it as a recurring expense that's part of doing business. (Smaller airports got this religion earlier in an attempt to woo travelers to fly out of a regional location instead of a busier major hub.)

The Rise of Powerful Mobile Devices

The iPhone made its splash pre-2010, but this year marked the emergence of serious full-on competition for Apple's particular mode of success: touchscreen, fluent integrated interfaces, a great browser, seamless connectivity, and a glass (touch) keyboard. And then there's the iPad, in both 3G and Wi-Fi-only models, joined this fall by the Samsung Galaxy Tab, and next year by dozens of Windows 7, Android, and Linux models.

Smartphones and many tablet models will have Wi-Fi built in alongside 3G or 4G (WiMax and LTE phones). AT&T was the poster child for overwhelmed 3G networks in some cities, but other carriers will likely see strain as the count of more capable devices flood onto their networks. AT&T already turned to Wi-Fi in hotspots as a heat sink to bleed data usage off; the iOS 3 update to the iPhone in 2009 enabled automatic and seamless switching to AT&T hotspots in the US (and other carriers' hotspots in many countries for their subscribers).

This year, AT&T started up several test markets for hotzones available only to its subscribers, including in Times Square. Pushing heavy data usage to Wi-Fi in dense tourist and business parts of a city is a smart move, and I expect to see more of it. It's cheap by some order of magnitude compared to adding more cell capacity, and if you don't have the cell spectrum, you can't add more in any case. (The move to faster 3G flavors and to 4G increases the density of bits per hertz, and that will improve flow on the cell side, too.)

Where I Got It Wrong (and Right

Free fall fail. I was well behind on the trend towards free, which I freely admit. I thought that coffeeshops and the like might ultimately and slowly migrate to a free-with-purchase or entirely free model because travelers and locals would always have a choice. Everything else being equal, you'd choose free over fee. But the trend outstripped my analysis: it made more sense to McDonald's and Starbucks, along with other chains, to have a simpler message that encouraged dwell time and return visits. (And since people were already using 3G, it wasn't like they didn't have alternatives when in the shop.)

I never thought that airports and hotels would loosen their grip, but it's happened. Many of the busiest airports in the US and Canada now provide free service, and more are considering it. It's a difficult time to move funds from the revenue side (even in minimal) to the expense, which may delay some airports making the transition. But anything that makes travelers happier is something airports and airlines support.

Mile-high Wi-Fi. I've been writing about in-flight Internet almost since the start of this blog. Connexion by Boeing was in the pre-launch stages when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred, changing the dynamics and revenue of airline flight permanently. Boeing never got back on track, but I was sure that some combination of passenger demand and airline interest would bring this to fruition after Connexion shut down following only two years in operation.

In late 2008, Aircell brought Internet service back to the skies, and has since put over 1,000 planes across several airlines into service. Row 44 has Southwest signed up and starting a rollout. Aeromobile and OnAir have mobile service on a few dozens planes. And Lufthansa just relaunched its FlyNet, formerly with Connexion, and now in partnership with Panasonic.

Some folks would like to get away from work (or just the Internet as a whole) in the air, but the demand is there to turn some unproductive disconnected time into a tether to the ground. For better or worse.

Ultrawidespin. Ultrawideband (UWB) was the most important new wireless technology next year for about six years running. It finally ran out of a steam more than a year ago. UWB uses wide swaths of spectrum to send very low-power and very brief signals. It's workable within a single room, and the first standard was designed to hit USB 2.0 speeds of 480 Mbps. It was ultimately anointed as the protocol for certified Wireless USB.

But it never took off. The IEEE was stalled by one of the participants in 802.15.3a, which successfully held off group approval of a widely supported and more easily globally adapted standard from being adopted. This delayed work by years, the group disbanded without settling on a standard that was likely to become the base for many different efforts (including a Bluetooth update, video streaming, and USB).

Momentum was lost. While the WiMedia Alliance (ultimately a merger of two groups with complementary interests in UWB) worked hard, Wi-Fi's 802.11n flavor was already in the marketplace, inexpensive enough, and achieved enough goals to make UWB's cost and integration unnecessary. UWB shipped in a few pieces of gear, and was on track for a while as a high-definition video streaming option. Now, it's not gone, but it's certainly seen history pass it by.

(Instead of UWB, we'll have 60 GHz networking capable of multiple multi-Gbps channels in a single room, and with few of the tradeoffs of UWB. 60 GHz can carry uncompressed high-def signals. On the networking side, the Wireless Gigabit Alliance has made peace and partnerships with some parallel and competing standards efforts, including at the Wi-Fi Alliance, which has many members in common with WiGig.)

Camera integration lags. Cameras, GPS, and Wi-Fi seem like the perfect combination. But after several years of Wi-Fi finding its way into digital cameras, I'm still underwhelmed. The Wi-Fi is typically difficult to configure, doesn't allow transfer over enough different methods (often only to a special cameramaker's storage/sharing service), and can't connect to hotspots. GPS is another missed opportunity. While GPS is built into some cameras, it's also often hard to configure, use, and update.

Fortunately, the Eye-Fi came along, and papered over a lot of these failures. The latest SD-format cards include 802.11n, automatic hotspot logins (an extra yearly fee for some models), and Wi-Fi-based geotagging using Skyhook Wireless. I'm a long-time user and fan of the cards, which give me nearly all of what I need and that camera makers fail to provide. With an optional feature to delete older images already transferred as you take newer pictures, I haven't had to manage what's stored on my Eye-Fi card in the last year.

What I want still? All camera makers to add support for the Eye-Fi so a camera doesn't power down until the card's CPU has finished transferred images off (a limited number of cameras have this integration), and a real GPS option, even if it requires a tiny external fob or hot-shoe add-on. Camera makers could also wake up and figure it out themselves, but this many years in, I'd bet on Eye-Fi first.

802.11n standards win. The Wi-Fi Alliance predated this blog, and, noted earlier, changed its name from WECA to WFA to reflect the power of the Wi-Fi brand name. Keeping Wi-Fi interoperable over its so far 11 years of existence is a remarkable accomplishment. The group is composed of all the major firms involved in consumer and enterprise Wi-Fi, including chipmakers, computer OS developers, and hardware manufacturers. Nonetheless, interests don't always align.

A great schism almost occurred in 2004, when Atheros attempted to push a non-standard channel bonding scheme that could cause measurable problems for nearby networks, even if they used the system. Fortunately, Atheros and its OEM partners backed down, the Wi-Fi Alliance stepped up, and the crisis was averted. (There's a long of back story we'll never know, but Atheros had a large enough market segment as a supplier to have split the spec into camps.)

Similarly, in 2005 and 2006, wrangling in the IEEE Task Group N, led by Airgo, prevented accord even as products hit the market. This forced me to write a widely cited piece, "Don't Buy Draft N," referring to the nominally draft-status 802.11n devices then on the market. I didn't win any friends among equipment makers and chipmakers, and I didn't care then nor now. What they were doing to consumers was unacceptable.

Ultimately, different groups figured out how to make certain incompatible elements optional or remove them, and managed to coalesce on a Draft 1.0 and 2.0 that led to upgradable firmware for equipment sold under those banners, and a robust final spec that changed home, campus, metro, and enterprise Wi-Fi in remarkable ways.

Herding cats is always a challenge. The Wi-Fi Alliance is both run by and composed of cats, making it harder. Eleven years in, they're still pulling off the trick.

Muni-fail. I followed municipal Wi-Fi ridiculously closely from the first announcements in 2004 by Philadelphia and San Francisco for free city-wide networks, to the death throes of firms shedding divisions, disappearing into bankruptcy, or just disappearing in 2007. I won't recapitulate that all here; read my 2007 year-in-review for that account.

The short story is that cities asked for too much from vendors that agreed to give away the farm. The models proposed by Wi-Fi operators typically required too large a percentage of a city's broadband market at a time that DSL and cable providers were finally stepping up speeds and coverage. Muni-Fi operators also didn't pilot enough projects soon enough to figure out capital costs. In the end, two to three times the amount of gear was seen as required to build out coverage necessary for indoor service (where even that worked) as initially expected in 2005. That doomed the effort.

In the last three years, however, USI Wireless completed its Minneapolis build to the surprise and delight of many residents, who apparently quite like the service. It remains the only commercially run city-wide Wi-Fi network of any real scale that I'm aware of in the world. Google offers free Wi-Fi in Mountain View, and some small towns offer village-wide coverage.

Between 3G for mobile and improvements in DSL and cable availability, pricing, and speed, the crying need for metro-scale networks died back enough to kill the market opportunity. 4G networks are the new municipal Wi-Fi networks. Networks by major carriers around the world may finally bring moderate and consistently available broadband speeds anywhere in a city.

I always hoped for successful privately operated competitive wireless broadband networks to counter the market failure of incumbent and monopoly telecom and cable firms. The reality of most deployments was that they couldn't live up to wired broadband. Newer hardware overcomes some of those limits, but the time has passed.

My Future

I'm not going anywhere, so don't fret, new or loyal readers. I'll continue to update this site as I have in 2010, when stories warrant. I've never wanted to write about everything Wi-Fi, because so much of it is barely interesting to begin with, and then is spread across 1,000 sites with little additional detail.

I try to bring you stories that have some meaning to them beyond the routine, as well as analysis of new technologies—and critiques of inaccurate or sloppy coverage elsewhere.

I thank you all for reading, and look forward to the years to come. We have a cozier space in which to talk now, but I'm still quite interested in what's to come.


Re : Muni Wi-Fi
Here's something to explore - that "Free Muni Wi-Fi" is too closely linked to pie-in-the-sky. What might have happened had those cities gone after the low hanging fruit (LHF = cell phone charges, mobile workers, comm. interoperability for first responders, etc.) instead ?

The LHF approach would focus on fiber landlines to key nodes (e.g. police + fire stations, libraries, maintenance yards, etc.) and the free Wi-Fi would be a side benefit. This way there would be a clear cost justification through cell phone charge reduction, improved responsiveness (e.g. downloading building plans before responding to a fire alarm), and improved productivity (e.g. case workers could submit paperwork through a remote node instead of returning to the office).

Also, the LHF approach avoids the 100% trap. I remember seeing network plan announcements that promised complete coverage of a city. And anybody who's studied radio comm. knows that that is an extremely elusive goal (due to : hills, hollows, buildings, weather, smoke). It's more realistic to build a network of strong nodes and then fill in the gaps as funds become available. One might even get volunteers to help with the filling in by deploying mesh relays.

Free wifi seems to have died off over the past 3 years in our city.
As wifi became more popular and more people had devices, the free spots instead of becoming larger onour city map has shrunk to almost nothing.

So yeah, it really did die.

I'm still here too.
After years in the ML subscription and the RSS, i regularly read and share your inputs on it.
So best of luck for 2011

Yes it is true, wifi is beginning to be mature. But one aspect of wifi in a home or office or school is still there. If the wifi router is not able to cover the territory, then it is necessary to hardwire a connector which can support other wifi routers within the same network. There has always been the possibility of an Internet over Powerline network which could support many nodes and all without rewiring a house, an office or a school.

What is happening with this powerline network technology?

Thanks for your almost-a-decade of diligence, focus, smarts and good humor!

Our CTO here in Seattle has pursued something like that. The city now has hundreds of miles of fiber connecting city, state, county, federal, and school facilities. It was a quiet effort that's reaped huge rewards. He hopes to use that as the basis of a plan to roll out fiber to the home in Seattle.

Hello Glen,

When we decide to launch our French site dedicated to Wi-Fi (about 6 years now), we have quite the same vision of yours. Helping people how to connect a Wi-Fi router or create a Wi-Fi connection.

OF course in a couple of years, we have seen Wi-Fi upgrading and i remember a day on a Event talking with a journalist saying us : Wi-Fi ? So you business will be out out in 6 months, this technology is a "mode".

What my joy if I could see this journalist again today!!!

Of course ourselves our site has moved to Wireless tech and not only Wi-Fi.

But we still have customer asking us how to increase Wi-Fi signal, check their Box's...

So you and us have helping the technology to be know by the Customer End User and you can be honoured with that.

GOOD JOB and never let down your arms ! Wi-Fi and CEU still need you !

Regards from Wireless Frenchies :)

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