Is Wi-Fi the real competitor to LTE?

David Pringle, moderator of the discussion forums on the GSMA’s Mobile Innovation Exchange, argues that Wi-Fi, not WiMAX, is the real competitor to LTE because the economics of Wi-Fi, not to mention its speed compared to existing cellular technologies, make it the preferred wireless option for most people with iPhones, iPods and iPads, at home and elsewhere:

“In some cities, public buildings provide free WiFi with no strings attached. Anyone with a computer or smartphone can sit down in London’s Royal Festival Hall, for example, and get online, albeit via an intermittent connection. The Centro de Cultura Contemporanea de Barcelona also appears to offer free WiFi to anyone in the vicinity. Some train services, such as Britain’s East Coast line, also provide free WiFi. At the same time, more and more people have WiFi in their homes and places-of-work. The strong demand for Apple’s iPod Touch and its first iteration of the iPad, both of which have WiFi, but not 3G, is a clear indication that many people are prepared to make do with just WiFi even in a highly-portable device.”

Pringle adds that WiMAX is losing out to the TDD variant of LTE in important markets like India and China. Towards the end of the article Pringle says, “To be sure, there will always be customers, notably business people in a hurry, who will be prepared to pay for the convenience offered by mobile broadband . . . But seemingly free WiFi is obviously going to put downward pressure on what operators can charge for mobile broadband and that could weaken the business case for widespread deployment of expensive new LTE networks.”  (**Note: I don’t think mobile broadband is a convenience worth paying for based on my experiences below). Hence, Pringle argues, the battle will be between Wi-Fi and paid-for mobile broadband.

I don’t know enough about how LTE deployments are going in the United States and other countries, and what the WiMAX folks are doing to compete, so I can’t say with any certainty that WiMAX will kill LTE. I do agree with Pringle that Wi-Fi is making cellular mobile broadband look very bad indeed and the more Wi-Fi there is, the more people will stay away from cellular networks, which oddly enough, could be the only thing that will save the mobile carriers from a user uprising. For next couple of years, however, as more people sign up for mobile data service to use on devices like the iPhone (and heaven forbid, the iPad), the cellular networks will be crushed to death. People will seek Wi-Fi and will be outraged when they can’t find it.

My Experience Using an iPhone on AT&T’s Network and on Wi-Fi

Now that I have an iPhone, let me summarize my experience on AT&T’s network versus my experience on Wi-Fi networks (at home and elsewhere) and you will understand why Wi-Fi is, for me, hands down, the better option:

(1) The AT&T network in San Francisco is nearly unusable. In my apartment on the 11th floor of a building on the Embarcadero, close to the Financial District, all of my cellular calls have been dropped. Recently on a long conference call, it got dropped 4 times. I called back using Skype Out over my Wi-Fi network. Elsewhere in San Francisco, the network simply crawls to a stop especially when I am using Google maps or any other kind of data application. I wonder: what is the point of paying AT&T the hefty monthly fee for a useless network? I can’t even use it to make proper calls. So at home I use Skype to make calls over Wi-Fi, not my iPhone and when people call me on my iPhone, I warn them that I will call them instead, WHEN not if, the call is dropped.

(2) The AT&T network in Los Angeles is actually worse than in SF: I did not think THAT was possible but it’s true. My experience in LA is AT&T’s revenge for my unceasing complaints about their SF network. I was at Griffith Park, West Hollywood, the Fairfax district, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, and Venice Beach. Most of the time I had only an Edge connection. Edge! Even the 3G network, when I could get it, which was rare, was very, very slow. What century are we living in? Is this an emerging nation or a submerging one? In Lima (Peru), the network was much faster. My partner was recently in Nepal, hiking the Annapurna trail, and he had better mobile connections there. The iPhone on AT&T’s network in Los Angeles is utterly hopeless. I do not understand how Angelenos put up with it. Many people in LA have iPhones and maybe because they’re so laid back and have nice weather all the time, they can tolerate a network experience that is much worse than that in San Francisco. If you are in a car (which is where you will find yourself 80 percent of the time in Los Angeles) looking for an address of a restaurant on an iPhone, you will be very frustrated. Just call the restaurant and get directions (pray your phone call isn’t dropped, too.).

(3) The outdoor Wi-Fi network in Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade is great: Finally, a Wi-Fi network. There is an outdoor Wi-Fi network around the 3rd Street Promenade and it is fast and free. No horrible login screens. Just good, fast Wi-Fi. I sat outside Angelato, an ice cream place at 301 Arizona Avenue, off the Promenade, and started doing all my iPhone stuff (finding directions, looking at maps, checking email, conducting Google searches) trying to keep the ice cream from melting, but my goodness I just had to get that all in before venturing out into the wild horrible world of AT&T’s network. Congratulations to Santa Monica for providing a real public service!

(4) Wi-Fi abroad saves me from roaming charges: There’s an organized highway robbery fully sanctioned by every single government around the world and it’s called roaming charges. Every operator who has a license to run a mobile network charges horrendous roaming fees with the blessing of their government. The only thing missing is a loaded gun pointed at your head. There is NO exception. As a result, we, the people, have only one option: Wi-Fi. Thankfully, there is also Skype, which on an iPod Touch or an iPhone, or any other kind of portable device, works like a charm. It’s free if you do Skype to Skype calls, but you pay a few cents here and there for calls to landlines and mobiles. The call quality is excellent.

In Bali, there is free Wi-Fi everywhere: cafes, spas, nail salons, restaurants, shops, hotels, yoga studios, and beach clubs. So you do your calls and emails at these places. There is also free Wi-Fi in many cafes and shopping malls in Jogjakarta, at the airports of Bali and Jogjakarta, as well as in the Taipei international airport. Calling from Bali using Skype Out works very well; people back home cannot believe you are in Bali. Why ever would you subject yourself to the cellular highway robbery?

LTE: will it save cellular operators and their networks?

Now, we are faced with the coming of LTE, which is marketed as the Saviour of everyone, operator and customer alike, bringing true broadband speeds to the mobile user. At least that’s what the operators and LTE vendors are saying. But I’ve heard this before. It was called HSDPA, then HSUPA or 3.5G, which is now deployed in London and other cities in Europe. And still people there are complaining about how slow the networks are when they are using iPhone applications and how many calls are dropped. I am convinced LTE will not rival the speeds on Wi-Fi networks. If even more people use iPhones, Android phones, iPads and whatever is coming in the next 5 years, I expect LTE networks to have the same problems and for people like me to write articles like this ten years from now still complaining about mobile broadband. I hope that in the future, Wi-Fi will indeed be more ubiquitous especially outdoor Wi-Fi, so I won’t need to bother with LTE, LTE 2.0 and whatever the cellular operators have in mind to pick my pockets.

Back to my iPod Touch?

I am watching my monthly cellular bills closely. This is month 2 of the iPhone for me. I may just move back to plain old cheap voice service on an old Nokia phone plus my iPod Touch (using Wi-Fi). The AT&T network is a terrible disappointment and is not worth the money I am paying.

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And speaking of free Wi-Fi, Glenn Fleishman reports that Discount Electronics, a company in Austin, Texas, got so tired of not having free Wi-Fi in Austin that they are deploying 50 free Wi-Fi hotspots around the city, and that if the city would let them do it at Austin Airport, they’d pay for it too.


  1. farooq raza says:

    Personally speaking LTE is an acronym that to me means everything and nothing. From wireless perspective, Long Term Evolution can encompass everything, just like cloud computing or it could just be a large data center or a NAP in the internet. WiFi addresses a particular market that could expand and can compete with LTE but I firmly believe it will be part of LTE. My two cents worth.

    Best Regards,


  2. Coming from the lost era of ISDN – It Still Does Nothing or I Still Don’t Know, I want to scream LTE will be Lost Time Experimenting.

    When I see WiMax, LTE and WiFi compared, I see apples to oranges comparisons. WiMax and LTE are associated with the culture of cellular carries where the driving force is investor short-term profits, instead of end-user efficacy. WiFi (may it be WiMax or WiFi wireless) is driven by providing a affordable product that works.

    4G from Clearwire and Sprint currently have unlimited data usage. but how long will that last when investors realize the cash cow in data overage charges. WISPs operators usually have no problem offering at least 50 to 100 GB per month at price points comparable to cellular 5 GB limits.

  3. David Hoffman says:

    LTE will be extremely valuable to those living in areas where there is no DSL or Cable or WISP broadband available. Many people in the USA are using EVDO services as a broadband connection to the internet. All of them are eagerly awaiting LTE deployment to get even higher speeds, maybe 10Mbps down/ 2.5 Mbps up from the present 1.0 Mbps down / 0.25 Mbps up. We expect to pay for buckets of GBs, maybe in 10GB increments. We accept the fact that you will have to pay to get the service you need.

  4. I think LTE will take over wired internet broadband options. Especially after SAPIDO has released its 4G mobile broadband router people will be able to move their internet service to anywhere and share it through SAPIDO’s WiFi.

  5. Until WiFi adds automatic power adjustment and sub 100ms mobile handoff, it’s at a disadvantage.