TECH TALK: India’s Next Decade: WiFi

(Note: This column is part of an ongoing series on “India’s Next Decade”. Over the next few columns, I have compiled a series of notes from various writers on what Kevin Werbach has called the Next WWW: Web Services, Weblogs and WiFi. Later, I will provide the context of how this is the set of opportunities our generation has to build new companies, and perhaps, a new India.)

There is a revolution brewing in the world of communications, and for a change, it is not being driven by the telecom companies or the Internet Service Providers. A few years ago, there was a general recognition that wireless is going to play a crucial role in bridging the last mile for communications, and it was expected that the mobile networks like 2.5G and 3G would be the solution. This led to the mobile phone companies bidding billions of dollars for spectrum in many countries, especially in Europe. What is now becoming clear is that while the wireless networks may offer a solution, they are not going to be the only game in town. The reason? WiFi, or 802.11b as it is also called.

WiFi uses open spectrum – in this case, 2.4 Ghz – for communications. Its range is somewhat limited (100 metres), but directional antennae could increase that dramatically in the years to come. The speed is 11 Mbps, and that too is going up to 54 Mbps with WiFi5 (802.11a). WiFi can be used for wireless LANs within offices and homes. But its real potential is going to be in enabling the creation of public networks, much like the way the Internet was put together.

How does it work? Writes Yuki Noguchi in the Washington Post (April 28, 2002):

The appeal of the technology for many is that it’s cheap and easy to use. WiFi requires a small device — called an access point — mounted on a wall or a ceiling. Access points cost $125 to $500, and can convert any kind of high-speed service — cable modem, digital subscriber line (DSL) or T-1 line — into a wireless connection. Like garage-door systems, cordless phones and baby monitors, the airwaves they use aren’t regulated by the government, and don’t interfere with radio or television transmissions.

Receiving that signal requires a credit card-sized client card, which costs $80 to $100. Some of the newest laptops come with the card in place; most others require the additional purchase of the card, which slides into the side of the computer and can detect a signal from an access point up to 900 feet away.

Writes Stephen Wildstrom in Business Week (May 6, 2002) on the emerging wireless networks:

Public wireless Ethernets, offering speeds comparable to typical office networks for prices usually around $8 to $10 a day, are cropping up in airports, hotel public areas, coffee shops, and other “hot spots” around the country. Several factors are making them more available and easier to use.

The most obvious factor is that the popularity of wireless networks using the same Wi-Fi technology in offices, campuses, and even homes means that far more laptops are equipped with the proper adapters. In fact, many laptops now come with Wi-Fi transceivers built in. Or you can add a Wi-Fi PC card, which starts at about $80.

Microsoft has made Wi-Fi use much easier by building good support for it into Windows XP. When you click on the system tray icon of your Wi-Fi adapter, a menu offers to show you any available network. You click on your choice of network, enter a password if needed, and you’re on the Internet. Sometimes you can just take advantage of a network in the neighborhood that has been left open for access by anyone.

Finally, tiny islands of wireless availability are combining into much larger areas of wireless coverageAggregators such as Boingo Wireless, iPass, and Gric Communications are striking deals to let them offer a single account that provides access to many networks.

The Economist (April 4, 2002) elaborates on the attempts to build out WiFi networks:

Attempts to build large-scale Wi-Fi networks so far have fallen into two camps: top-down networks, built in the traditional way by network operators who then charge fees for access, and bottom-up networks, built by loose federations of enthusiasts who offer free access to all.

Neither approach is ideal, however. The problem with top-down networks is that users will pay only to use a network with good coverage, and the market is highly fragmented. Different airports and hotels are served by different operators. No single operator provides wide coverage, so Wi-Fi fans need multiple accounts and passwords to stay connected.

So is the stage set for a repeat of the boom in fixed-line Internet access? Not quite. One problem is that Wi-Fi networks rely on existing high-speed fixed connections to the Internet. Wi-Fi’s future thus depends on cheap, ubiquitous broadband, which has yet to materialise. Furthermore, sharing a connection is frowned upon by broadband-service providers, though some providers are thinking of introducing pricing plans that explicitly allow connection-sharing over Wi-Fi. Another problem is that commercial use of unlicensed spectrum is prohibited in some countries.

Although zealots like to think Wi-Fi will kill 3G, it seems more likely that Wi-Fi and cellular networks will work together. Forthcoming plug-in cards for laptops can use Wi-Fi if it is available, and fall back to a slower cellular connection if not.

Three companies in the US which are riding the WiFi bandwagon to either enable, build or aggregate networks are Boingo Wireless, Joltage and Sputnik.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.