Will Mobile Data Completely Displace WiFi?

14th Mar 2017

Sensationalism is without doubt the currency of mainstream and online news outlets, and a recent headline which read ‘A World Without WiFi Looks Possible as Unlimited Plans Rise’ struck me as a fine example.

Given that Ensign are a wireless communications company, such a potent assertion could result in worried looks all round. However, after some careful and considered thought on the matter I have reached the following conclusions.

Rural WiFi Substitute

I guess it’s possible that a percentage of folks who happen to live in locations with a good 4G service may choose to use mobile data to fulfill their connectivity needs.

Right now I’d suggest that percentage is fairly small but accept that it will slowly increase over time if mobile data plans become unlimited at a low fixed price.

Do I think that mobile data will displace WiFi completely?  No I don’t; not ever.

Pervasive WiFi

WiFi is now so pervasive that I do not think it will ever go away, the kit and the frequency bands used will change but it will still be broadly known as WiFi.

Whilst it’s possible today for those with all-you-can-eat data contracts to download via 4G, and thus not have the outlay of a conventional phone line and broadband contract, this is still not ideal. To make this a realistic approach, users would really need to purchase further hardware, unless of course they have a SIM card in all devices or are prepared to tether their phones to a non-SIM equipped device.

People who take this route typically purchase a 4G router which acts as a bridge between WiFi and 4G – so Wi-Fi still provides the end-user connectivity with 4G as the backhaul to the network.

The WiFi Advantage

As soon as we move away from considering the individual case, the advantage quickly swings to a WiFi network as organisations will always want to control network access, provide a custom landing/registration page with secure access control which is increasingly important today.

The businesses (mostly retailers and hoteliers) who wish to take advantage of the analytical data available from their own WiFi networks would not wish to lose access to this data, and the alternative of purchasing this from your friendly local mobile service provide is probably less than appealing.

Unlicensed LTE

The article mentioned at the top if this post suggests that a possible WiFi replacement could be LTE-U; claiming that it could ‘drown out’ WiFi networks.

At this stage, it is fair to suggest that LTE-U (unlicensed LTE) will be allowed in the UK within a sub-band of the current 5GHz allocation as it could otherwise be seen (by Ofcom) as putting UK PLC at a trading disadvantage.

This though will require careful coordination such that WiFi users are not overly disadvantaged. I say this as WiFi is a “listen before transmit” type technology, so if a transmission is in progress then WiFi will wait until the channel is clear.

I think the reasoning behind the push to squeeze LTE-U into the existing WiFi bands has a lot to do with the mobile operators struggling to service current demands for bandwidth in densely populated areas.

Customers demand more coverage and throughput but are typically not so keen on yet more cell towers. This is what has led to the use of pico-cells within buildings and the practice of customers switching mobile calls to WiFi when in-building mobile coverage is poor, i.e. using the customers’ existing wired/wireless network to connect back to the mobile phone network.

My prediction is that we will see the introduction of multi-standard kit going forward e.g. a WiFi AP/router which accepts WiFi and LTE-U clients as the chipset manufacturers are already engaged in this activity. Until such time though that data costs are fairly negligible consumers will always opt for Wi-Fi given the choice.

So, are our WiFi days really over?

I believe I have already emphatically answered this question above…but just to consolidate my stance – mobile data will never entirely replace WiFi connectivity.

Do you agree? Let us know your thoughts on the future of WiFi!

What Next?

If you are planning to deploy an enterprise-grade wireless network or are experiencing problems with a existing setup, please feel free to contact Ensign Communications for a chat with our technical team.