The Wi-Fi icon — a dot with radio waves radiating outward — glows on nearly every internet-connected device, from the iPhone to thermostats to TVs. But it’s starting to fade from the limelight. With every major US wireless carrier now offering unlimited data plans, consumers don’t need to log on to a Wi-Fi network to avoid costly overage charges anymore. That’s a critical change that threatens to render Wi-Fi obsolete. And with new competitive technologies crowding in, the future looks even dimmer.
“You could see a big switch,” said Tim Farrar, founder of Telecom Media Finance Associates Inc. “Your coffee shops may be less compelled to provide Wi-Fi for you now.”
In an all-data-you-can-eat world, consumers’ use of Wi-Fi at public places like stadiums and airports will drop to a third of all mobile data traffic from about half, Farrar estimates. This means businesses not upgrading public access Wi-Fi as often. Smartphone users might not even turn on their Wi-Fi capability, according to Barry Gilbert, an analyst at researcher Strategy Analytics in Boston.
“At Sprint Corp., where unlimited plans are the norm, customers aren’t waiting until they get to a Wi-Fi hot spot to watch the latest video. They are staying on cellular,” said Craig Moffett, an analyst at MoffettNathanson LLC. “Customers are rational. When pricing incentives favor Wi-Fi, customers use more Wi-Fi. When pricing incentives shift, so does behavior.”
The erosion of Wi-Fi’s influence is likely to be slow and uneven. While unlimited data plans make the technology less necessary for phones, many home devices, from a MacBook to an Amazon Echo, still use Wi-Fi to connect to the internet. Wi-Fi also helps fill in gaps in some office buildings and homes that have spotty cellphone coverage. Some wireless carriers also still rely on Wi-Fi networks to handle a large portion of the growing volume of internet traffic. Putting all of that Netflix-binging and Spotify-listening on cellular networks could strain capacity.
“Wi-Fi has consistently stayed ahead in terms of performance and its ability to move large amounts of data,” said Kevin Robinson, vice president of marketing for the Wi-Fi Alliance, a consortium of more than 700 companies, including Apple Inc., Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., LG Electronics Inc., Intel Corp., Qualcomm Inc. and Comcast Corp. “The market is going to decide which technology provides the best capabilities for the end user. To displace a technology like Wi-Fi is likely very optimistic.”
Unlimited plans aren’t the only threat. Wi-Fi has survived 20 years and spurred a roughly $20 billion industry of gear, service providers and chipmakers — mainly because its technology is open to innovation and it operates freely in the nation’s unlicensed airwaves. Wi-Fi now faces competition from other technologies that also run in those same frequencies.
A new system called LTE in Unlicensed Spectrum — or LTE-U, which depends on a combination of new small-cell towers and home wireless routers — risks congesting the spectrum upon which Wi-Fi relies. In decades past, the nation’s unlicensed airwaves were mostly known for their use by garage door openers, cordless phones, and the occasional baby monitor. Now they’re full of traffic from Wi-Fi networks that connect smartphones, laptops, set-top boxes, game consoles, and a whole host of smart devices to the internet. As LTE-U moves in, Wi-Fi may get drowned out.
“Places where operators have traditionally looked to Wi-Fi, they’ll leverage LTE-U,” said Kyung Mun, an analyst at researcher Mobile Experts. Developed by cellular carriers and their vendors, LTE-U may act as a disincentive for companies experimenting with Wi-Fi calling, including Comcast, and those dabbling in fiber networks, like Alphabet Inc.’s Google.
But LTE-U also benefits users. Consumers don’t have to type in passwords and sign in to every network like they do for public Wi-Fi hot spots. They can seamlessly move between their carriers’ cellular network and LTE-U, and not really know the difference.
LTE-U — and a related cellular
advancement, LTE-LAA — will also require less equipment. A 180,000-square-foot building would need 24 new access points instead of about 80 Wi-Fi hot spots, according to Amit Jain, vice president of marketing and product management at hardware maker SpiderCloud Wireless, which plans to ship LTE-U and LTE-LAA equipment in the second quarter. However, the total cost of deployment will be similar to Wi-Fi, Jain said.