Wi-Fi Revolution? Not So Fast!

Disagreements over standards, rival technologies, and concerns about hotspot security are bringing the industry's hopes down to earth with a crash

It was meant to be the year of Wi-Fi "convergence." Beginning in 2006, mobile-phone users in large numbers would finally be able to use handsets to roam seamlessly between cell-phone networks and the wireless fidelity, or Wi-Fi, hotspots that provide high-speed Internet access. Handset maker Motorola and networking king Cisco last year announced a bold joint effort to develop the gear necessary for the union of the disparate networks.

It's turning out to be the convergence that wasn't. In April, Motorola (MOT) and Cisco (CSCO) said they "suspended" the project amid tepid demand from the wireless carriers meant to distribute the handsets and related equipment. In 2004, consultancy Pyramid Research predicted more Americans would use Wi-Fi than cellular networks by 2007. About 30.2 million people in the U.S. used Wi-Fi last year, according to Pyramid. That compares with 213 million mobile-phone customers. Pyramid and other researchers have already revised their projections.

Demand for Wi-Fi is certainly rising, but the pace is showing signs of slowdown, if only temporarily. Global unit shipments of Wi-Fi access points and routers grew 53% last year, to 47.35 million, but they will only rise 22% in 2006, estimates consultancy ABI Research. Why the speed bumps? For starters, some corporate buyers are putting off Wi-Fi equipment purchases before the introduction of a new Wi-Fi standard. But that standard itself is facing delays. What's more, rival technologies are gaining popularity, while plans to blanket cities with low-cost or free Wi-Fi are hitting snags amid concerns over security and service quality.


  The new standard, 802.11n, is stumbling before it gets out the gate. An early, or pre-standard, version has met with mixed reviews. Marketed by Netgear and Buffalo Technology, the technology doesn't perform as well as earlier generations of Wi-Fi, according to tests by Craig Mathias, founder of wireless consultancy Farpoint Group.

The equipment's makers also don't guarantee they will be able to upgrade the software when the actual 802.11n standard becomes available. That means that any buyers of prestandard equipment could end up with obsolete gear within months. "There's a danger in the near term," says Sam Lucero, an analyst with researcher ABI. "If these problems do not get resolved, [the inferior performance] could put consumers off."

Netgear says Mathias' review wasn't done properly. "This was an intentional way to discredit our products," says David Henry, director of product marketing for consumer products at Netgear. And Brian Verenkoff, product manager for Buffalo, says it's common for new equipment to ramp up speed within several months of release, as its makers put out software upgrades.

Then there's the matter of the actual standard, which is being delayed amid infighting between backers of different approaches to interoperability with older systems. Broadcom (BRCM) on one hand, and Intel (INTC) and Philips (PHG) on the other are at loggerheads over certain specifications. Products based on an official, approved 802.11n aren't expected until late 2007, at least a year later than had been expected.


  Demand for Wi-Fi gear should pick up after products based on the new standard get released, says Lucero. But meantime, Wi-Fi risks being overshadowed by other broadband technologies. Service providers are increasingly turning to such methods as coaxial cable and broadband-over-power lines to let customers stream video and music in between devices in their homes, says Steve Rago, an analyst with tech consultancy iSuppli. Unlike Wi-Fi, which requires some set up, the power line technology, using electrical outlets within the home to transmit data, "is a purely plug-and-play technology," says Rago. "It requires no user set-up. Zero."

Many observers see wired technology as more reliable than the current generation of Wi-Fi gear, which can make streaming video and audio within a home a low-quality experience, Rago says. By 2010, shipments of wired technologies for the digital home will rise from about 30% of the market today (Wi-Fi accounts for the rest) to 50% of the total market, he estimates. And that may be just the beginning: Even when 802.11n comes out, "it will be two to three years late to market, and it will be hard to displace the winners," says Rago.

Another increasingly popular alternative to Wi-Fi is the so-called Evolution-Data Optimized, or EV-DO, wireless broadband networks being deployed across the country by Sprint Nextel (S) and Verizon Wireless, owned by Verizon (VZ) and Vodafone (VODA).


  Some commercial operators of Wi-Fi hotspots are putting off investments in Wi-Fi as more cities, counties, and even the state of Rhode Island develop their own subsidized Wi-Fi networks. Hotspot providers, having trouble making money on public hotspots anyway, might not be able to compete with city-wide, free coverage. About 58% of Wi-Fi hotspot users say they would only use hotspots if they are free, according to an April report by JuniperResearch (see BW Online, 3/09/06, "A Global FON for All").

Creation of citywide Wi-Fi networks is also hitting snags. In St. Cloud, Fla., which launched the first free U.S. citywide Wi-Fi network, users complain of weak signals and dead spots. In many cities offering Wi-Fi, signals can't penetrate buildings.

In San Francisco, which recently began negotiating with EarthLink (ELNK) and Google (GOOG) to construct a citywide net of 1,500 free hotspots, consumers worry the new network will result in a loss of privacy. The service will be partly supported through ads and served up to users based on their physical location and Web sites they visit. The project appears "rushed," says Craig Settles, author of Fighting the Good Fight for Municipal Wireless, a 2005 book on public Wi-Fi projects. In fact, about a third of cities and counties that have recently announced they would build Wi-Fi networks don't seem to have laid out a strategy for supporting operations and upgrades, he says. In a few years, he says, some locales' networks "will become useless."


  San Francisco authorities believe such worries are unfounded. "We've been doing our homework," says Chris Vein, executive director of the department of telecommunications and information services for the City of San Francisco. "I understand these concerns, but I don't necessarily agree [that they are real issues]."

It seems true that there is no free lunch -- or Wi-Fi, as the case may be. Just ask Cisco and Motorola. The companies shelved their plans for converged Wi-Fi-cellular gear amid concerns by wireless service providers that Wi-Fi doesn't offer "subscriber-bearing minutes," says Rick Esker, who leads strategic alliances at Cisco. "We needed to ensure it's a win-win proposition." Motorola and Cisco are currently in talks on how, and whether, to regroup.

While analysts expected carriers like Cingular to roll out handsets working on both cellular and Wi-Fi networks this year, now the company might only offer the service in 2007. Allen Nogee, an analyst with consultancy In-Stat, expects only 5,000 phones with cellular-Wi-Fi capabilities to be shipped this year to corporate clients worldwide. "I don't think the market is completely dead, but it's delayed several years." The year of convergence it's not.

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