Does Wi-Fi First herald the final curtain for mobile operators?

Posted on November 11, 2014

Rivalry makes for a far better narrative than co-operation, as the plots of countless literary works illustrate. What’s interesting, though, is that many of the great tales of conflict end in reconciliation; usually when both sides have learnt the folly of that conflict to their cost.

The story of Wi-Fi and cellular might lack the literary clout of, say, Romeo and Juliet, but that tension between competition and conciliation is present nonetheless. I was struck by this as I read a very interesting story on CNN suggesting that end users might soon be able to do without cellular service thanks to the enormous growth in Wi-Fi.

Just as Shakespeare’s famous play would be a lot less famous if the Montagues and Capulets had sorted out their differences at the beginning rather than the end, so a story that threatens calamity for one party or another stands a greater chance of exposure than one which heralds collaboration. It’s a provocative headline, and perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek.

The reality is that the tale of conflict between Wi-Fi and cellular is all but over; the industry realizes that both are necessary, both can thrive and both can win. What’s important is to ensure that end users are Always Best Connected in the moment, however that can be achieved and according to needs that change substantially hour by hour and day by day.

There are many connectivity use cases today, and the industry needs to focus on meeting all of them in a coherent way, rather than seeing the landscape as one which needs to be carved up and walled off. That just restricts the user and restricting the user risks bringing a plague on all our houses.

One user doesn’t just have one use case, after all. Their laptop or tablet that lacks a cellular radio requires one kind of connectivity but their smartphone often requires another. The user requires both.

Devicescape has long been promoting the benefits and growth of Wi-Fi, so it’s great to see stories like the one on CNN that speak to the huge resource that it has become. But it is simply not the case that Wi-Fi negates the need for cellular — and cellular operators — when connectivity is viewed as a whole.

In fact the Wi-Fi experience needs to become closer to the cellular experience, not more distinct from it. Public Wi-Fi today is enormously varied in terms of quality, ease of access and security. These are serious problems that must be solved to improve the user experience. Service providers that solve them will win — and mobile operators are the experts in managing wireless connectivity for best performance.

Today we see mobile operators reassessing Wi-Fi with fresh eyes, and becoming alive to the benefits and opportunities that it represents. Just look at T-Mobile USA CEO John Legere’s recent (and characteristically provocative) statement that it shouldn’t matter how he delivers the best connection; just that he delivers it.

And, of course, there are operators without cellular networks looking to Wi-Fi First models as an alternative that suits their set-up.

Mobile operators will still have a healthy business come 2020 (although not all of them will still be with us, for sure). What will be different in six years’ time is that there will be hundreds of millions more people using wireless devices for whom there is no distinction between different types of access. And operators’ means of delivering connectivity will reflect that.

Certainly Wi-Fi First is a threat to any operator that doesn’t understand how to respond to it but it’s an opportunity for any operator that does. Not so much the final curtain then, as the beginning of the next act.