There are two wireless broadband truisms that have proven unassailable here in the US:
- The promise of ubiquitous WiFi has failed, for the most part, to manifest;
- Market-restricting service providers fear ubiquitous WiFi
There’s a high correlation between those two axioms, and the result has been a self-fulfilling prophecy. The largest US telecommunications companies, Verizon and AT&T, have struggled to fit wireless access into their business models (although AT&T has done better of late). The concern, of course, revolves around monetization– once a widespread, reliable and easy-to-access WiFi infrastructure gained traction, smaller service providers would have the incentive and the means to compete with the bigger players… the latter of which appear to develop allergies to free markets once they reach critical mass.
For years now the major players have either given ubiquitous WiFi mere lip service or even fought against its spread. But now Verizon, the longstanding king of closed services, has relented and joined AT&T in offering free WiFi to its FiOS and DSL customers. The plan, a partnership with Boingo, is a major game-changer. That cannot be overstated. With the two giants of cell service now on board supporting WiFi, prior restraints against its success melt away.
The promise of such a premise is a potentially seamless experience for Verizon broadband customers. It extends their reach from homes and corporate campuses to hotspots all over the country. Yes, there will be gaps, but an advent like this encourages their filling. That filling will be Verizon’s 4G service, LTE… as well as the likely creation of new hotspots, made more viable by this move.
So suddenly the landscape changes. Voice over IP (VoIP) becomes more practical, as do Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs).
I’m particularly intrigued by the latter. I currently get my Nokia N810 Internet Tablet onto the internet using either my home router (connected to FiOS) or, when mobile, by tethering via Bluetooth to a cell phone utilizing AT&T’s 3G data plan. I can see myself relying on that method less and less as I am increasingly able to leverage my FiOS subscription and take advantage of WiFi hotspots.
But I’ll still be missing the filler. This exciting scenario is only partially helpful until I have connectivity on the road. That was the promise of WiMAX, which has struggled, but also of LTE, which looks to have a brighter future.
Those who recall the Nokia N810 WiMAX Edition also know that Nokia discontinued it not long after its launch. Given the strong momentum behind Verizon’s LTE solution, that starts to make sense IF Nokia (or a similar device provider) is readying an LTE variant. There have been many rumors and statements along these lines but nothing has yet materialized. However, device manufacturers would be remiss in my opinion by ignoring this development. I’m betting Verizon already had several vendors solidly on board before making this announcement.
While the US has dithered in this area, many parts of the world have been enjoying ubiquitous WiFi and the freedom it brings. But along with my renewed optimism comes the usual skepticism: why did Verizon relent?
I’m betting this is partly a strike against competitors, not just AT&T but even T-Mobile. The UK-based company has shown itself to be more open to wireless broadband services. And as noted at the start of this article, AT&T has been offering a similar option to its broadband customers. In addition, perhaps Verizon now sees its fiber optic network as the real money-maker, and mobile phone service as more of a supporting driver of future revenue. In that case, any profit lost as cell plan users move to VoIP would be made up by incoming FiOS subscribers.
I’m being guardedly hopeful on this. I still doubt any altruistic tendencies on the part of walled-garden service providers like Verizon, but if this benefits customers as I think it can then the results may speak for themselves. I’m eager to find out!