The future is mobile.  We all know that.  We read it everywhere.  In the UN Broadband Commission‘s recently published report entitled, The State of Broadband 2012: Achieving Digital Inclusion For All, ITU analysts boldly announce their belief that:

“mobile broadband could prove the platform for achieving the boost needed to get progress back on track – at end 2011, there were already almost twice as many mobile broadband subscriptions as fixed broadband connections.”

But what does it actually mean and is it really true?  When talking about our mobile broadband future, it is essential to distinguish between devices and networks.  The two things are not necessarily the same thing.

The Future is Mobile Devices

This future I believe in.  Small, low-power wireless devices whether phones or tablets are taking over the way we interact with each other and with content.  New markets and services are being created every day for mobile devices.  The world of app and apps stores are creating new opportunities for innovation and adding value.

The Future is Mobile Networks

This is the future mobile operators would like you to believe in but the evidence is increasingly not in their favour.  Here are some statistics that may change your perspective of our mobile broadband future.

Global Smartphone-originated Data Traffic

Global Smartphone-originated Data Traffic
January 2012 – Source: Mobidia

A recent study by Mobidia revealed that about 70% of smartphone data traffic travelled via WiFi and not mobile networks.  Keep in mind that this research was not done in Africa, it was done in the industrialised world.  What we are seeing overwhelmingly is WiFi become the default form of data access and cellular access being relegated to those times when WiFi is not available, an increasingly rare phenomenon in the rich world.

The figures are even higher for tablet traffic.  And while we’re at it, since when are tablets “mobile” devices?  Of the fifty million tablets sold in the United States, only 8% have mobile capacity.  The tablet is not a mobile device, it is a WiFi device.  Google’s Nexus7 tablet is WiFi-only.  Both Microsoft’s new Surface tablet and Apple’s new iPad Mini are likely to launch as WiFi-only devices.  Why would Apple and Microsoft do that?  Well, one reason might be to avoid the painful process of negotiating mobile carrier agreements.  Imagine if computer manufacturers had to negotiate ISP agreements to connect a computer to the net.  The latest tablet is also a whole lot cheaper than a smartphone.  Compare a $200 Nexus7 tablet with an $800 Samsung Galaxy S III smartphone.

ITU Y U NO LIKE WIFI?So what’s my point here?  My point is that the UN Broadband Commission’s recently published report on Achieving Digital Inclusion mentions WiFi exactly twice, both times parenthetically.  Mobile operators would like you to believe that the future of mobile broadband lies in the LTE networks that they are building.  And certainly that is partly true but only partly.  If the Mobidia stats are to be believed, about 30% true.

Mobile operators have no interest in WiFi because they currently have no control over WiFi networks although that is beginning to change in the U.S.  And we get reports like the one from the UN Broadband Commission because the dialogue at the ITU is dominated by operators.  The Broadband Commission itself is chaired by Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world.  The irony of putting the richest man in the world in charge of a commission to connect the poor appears to be lost on the UN.

In any discussion about the mobile broadband future of Africa, WiFi is simply not part of the discussion.  Yet the evidence is before our eyes of the strategic importance of WiFi to our “mobile” devices.  It’s cheap and fast and grew to solve the problem of affordable access by chance not by design.  It happened because WiFi is an open space for technology developers to innovate.  No carrier agreements required.

Also not mentioned in the UN Broadband Commission’s report is the potential of Television White Spaces spectrum, a space for with the potential for massive innovation in rural access.  Another area not controlled by mobile operators.

The benefits of WiFi go beyond just cheaper access.  They also create the opportunity to eliminate the weakness of a single point of failure that mobile networks create.  WiFi infrastructure can make it harder to wilfully shutdown communication in a given geographic region.  The key to resilient networks is plurality of access and WiFi is already embedded in every smart device you can think of.

It would be nice to see WiFi recognised for the powerful role that it is already playing in mobile broadband and to see it figure in national strategic broadband plans for the future.


Posted by Steve Song

@stevesong local telco policy activist. social entrepreneur. founder of @villagetelco #africa #telecoms #opensource #privacy #wireless #spectrum #data

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  • I couldn’t agree more! Interesting though is that some operators seem to be more progressive then others, implementing new standards and technologies for seamless handover and authentication between cellular and wifi (single sign on), bundled tariffs and massive hotspot footprints (indosat announced to roll out 30,000 hotspots for example, KDDI has similar plans). I suppose that these operators have recognized a) what he user really wants (excellent broadband performance while in nomadic mode) and b) the near ubiquity on wifi on the device side.

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  • Interesting analysis but I would humbly offer a different point of view. WiFi as a wireless technology is not up to par with LTE in most aspects: security, QoS, mobility, coverage etc. A fully distributed LTE architecture with no single point of failure is indeed achievable and in fact I have been part of more than one deployment of this kind. The fact that some mainstream operators may use and charge for LTE technology in a certain way (often due to legacy installed base) does not mean that WiFi is a better solution. Would you not see a place for distributed LTE networks in Africa where there is less of a legacy network burden? Spectrum permitting…

  • Steve Song

    Hi Karim. I think you misunderstand me. My point is not that WiFi is superior to LTE but simply that there is plenty of evidence that WiFi is playing a massive role in mobile broadband and as such it ought to figure strategically in proportion to other technologies. There is nothing wrong with LTE. Roll-on LTE network coverage, distributed or otherwise. What I am trying to make a case for is a plurality of access technologies. LTE, WiFi, TV White Spaces, etc.

  • Agreed, multi-access makes sense but my point is that it is really a matter of available spectrum, which is the reason for WiFi’s success (and problems), rather than technology. In terms of technology for covering vast rural areas (e.g. Africa) WiFi is not the best fit IMO while it is perfect for other situations. If “good” spectrum is made available, and it need not be operator controlled at all, then it makes sense to use the technology that fits best.

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  • Clueless

    Karim, I’m keen to know what do you think of when you talk about ‘good’ spectrum? and how would ‘operator control’ of the frequency be avoided?
    you mean LTE frequencies should be treated like the ISM bands?
    We heard promises for so long that WiMax was going to take over from WiFi, why should LTE be any different?
    If we’re really looking to the near future, won’t frequency allocation and specific frequency-based systems become a thing of the past with cognitive radio anyway?

  • Karim El Malki

    Hi Clueless, with good spectrum I simply meant frequencies with good propagation characteristics. For example, there are countries where certain parts of good “cellular” spectrum is treated like ISM for local coverage as you mentioned. Also, there are several studies from people who know more than I do regarding how LTE is different from WiMax. I would add volume production and economies of scale as a differentiator. I also agree with you that cognitive radio will be a game-changer. In fact I didn’t mean to imply static frequency assignments but just that good spectrum be made available and there has been work on enhancing e.g. LTE/LTE-A with cognitive concepts such as spectrum sharing.

  • Clueless

    Thanks Karim, just discovered this:
    “In a recently released report on unlicensed spectrum, wireless consultant and former Ofcom economist Richard Thanki argues that the wireless industry and its regulators have their priorities all wrong. If the idea is to build ubiquitous networks offering plentiful and cheap data, then carriers and governments should pursue the cheapest and most efficient technologies, which in most cases isn’t cellular infrastructure. “…”Thanki argues that the ‘spectrum crunch’ is a misnomer and [] the insistence on licensed airwaves isn’t a function of efficiency or utility, rather it’s one of control:
    Cellular operators are calling for ever more exclusive-use spectrum, in some cases up to 1,000MHz of additional bandwidth. Fulfilling these requests will lead to a substantial concentration in the ownership of the most valuable spectrum, risking both decreased competition and innovation. As part of a balanced approach to meeting the growing demands for data, policy makers should also enable more dynamic spectrum sharing and licence-exempt access across the spectrum. As shown in this report, licence-exemption promotes methods of broadband delivery that are overwhelmingly more efficient in their use of spectrum than their licensed counterparts. In addition, the licence-exempt ecosystem has been notable for creating contestable and competitive markets, characterised by disruptive innovation.” and:
    “Unlicensed spectrum is already the way the world is heading. Instead of trying to overcome their dependence on Wi-Fi and other unlicensed technologies, Thanki said, carriers and regulators need to embrace them. In his report he doesn’t say that the industry should do away with spectrum ownership completely, but he does recommend that regulators quash their bias for carrier-owned frequencies and strike a balance between licensed and unlicensed. Specifically Thanki recommends that regulators throw open TV white spaces spectrum for unlicensed use, which would trigger the next wave of wireless broadband innovation.”


  • Hi Karim…

    How many channels of LTE support do you think will fit into a “mobile” device? 6? 12? 24? I’m just curious…

    Which part of the internet can not be funneled through a layer 3 service on top of the current Wi-Fi standards? What arguments do you have for moving all of this up to layer 2? What is the supposed benefit to doing so? And is it really worth the cost? What about the fact that bandwidth greatly increases as your broadcast range shortens? Or the fact that you can literally install 100’s of Wi-Fi points for the price of an LTE base station?

    Just my thoughts. The existence of the internet is in my opinion thanks to the shortsightedness of the ITU and them labeling data as a “special case” to be dealt with later. Am I mistaken in seeing this as their attempt to rein in our internet freedom and to regulate it out of existence, to milk every last penny from the governments and populations of the world? Do you think the internet would have existed in it’s current form had the ITU had the opportunity to regulate each and every internet packet the way they do with voice?

    Just some more questions floating around in my head… in the vast sea of all my non-brainwashed personal experience…

  • Karim

    Clueless: Thanks for the link, I agree with many parts but I think that the WiFi=unlicensed and cheap logic is weak

    dagelf: I agree with the need to maintain independence of the Internet but I can’t understand how this relates to the discussion on wireless technologies. ITU and governments have not created LTE, the Internet or WiFi. Not sure what you mean with channels fitting in a mobile device? No such thing in LTE, maybe you are thinking about GSM time slots? Also your argument on layer 2 vs layer 3 is not applicable as we are talking about IP (v4 and v6) capable technologies. Regarding costs for installing, cabling, configuring 100’s (or better 1000’s for decent coverage) of quality outdoor APs they are definitely NOT cheaper than doing the same with a small LTE solution.

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