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Why the World Belongs to Wi-Fi First

By Dennis Jones

Wi-Fi First

You know you’re a big deal when you’re the subject of an article in The Economist. And that was the case with Wi-Fi first; in the words of The Economist: “Wi-Fi First will be great for consumers, disruptive for mobile firms.” The only quibble we have is with the tense, Wi-Fi first is already great for consumers and disrupting mobile firms, including enterprises, consumer brands and service providers. Need more proof? The Global State of Mobile Networks report recently found that Wi-Fi is the dominant connection mode, outpacing 4G LTE, both in regions where mobile data infrastructure is highly developed and in regions where mobile data infrastructure is far from ubiquitous.

But let’s back up a bit. First off, what is Wi-Fi first, and how did it get to be so big? Well, as the name suggests, Wi-Fi first, coined back in 2012, is the idea that mobile devices use Wi-Fi as their primary mode of connecting to the internet and only use cellular to fill in the remaining coverage gaps. And how did Wi-Fi get to be so huge? Well, because mobile device use got to be so huge. People and things connecting using smartphones, tablets and IoT devices generated unprecedented amounts of mobile data traffic. It just so happened that all of those devices were Wi-Fi enabled; in many cases, they were Wi-Fi only.

Devices, however, are only a part of the story. The real hero here is people, people who started using Wi-Fi, in droves. And here’s why they started:

  • Wi-Fi is cheaper. People are price sensitive – go figure. And cellular, which operates on licensed spectrum, is expensive, far more expensive than Wi-Fi, which operates on unlicensed spectrum. So when given the choice, people prefer to connect using Wi-Fi. Plus, subscribers incur all sorts of fees and charges – roaming, overages, etc. – from their cellular provider, whereas Wi-Fi tends to be priced more predictably.
  • Wi-Fi is faster. Mobile devices have gotten more powerful. You can do more of the things you want and need to do on them, from stream videos, use high bandwidth applications and download big data files. And Wi-Fi is faster than cellular, even 4G LTE. So people can do more for cheaper.
  • Wi-Fi is everywhere. People are using more Wi-Fi, because there is more Wi-Fi to use. For instance, there’ll be 432 million public hotspots by 2020. That’s a sevenfold increase over last year. To get a sense of the magnitude: by 2020, Wi-Fi and mobile-connected devices will generate 78 percent of Internet traffic. And Wi-Fi is not just everywhere, it’s in places where cellular coverage doesn’t reach, like airplanes, certain convention centers, hotels, buildings and rural locations.
  • Wi-Fi is better. Wi-Fi has gotten better, thanks to technology breakthroughs that have improved the hotspot experience. Foremost among them is Wi-Fi Certified Passpoint, which has enabled a more-cellular like experience for people when connecting to Wi-Fi. But also, Wi-Fi is just better for certain activities that require lots of data. Those are the activities that people are doing on their mobile devices. And that’s why when given the choice, people are connecting to Wi-Fi first in preference of any other means.

The long and short of it is that this is Wi-Fi’s moment. Don’t believe me? Check your device, chances are you’re already connected.