TECH TALK: India’s Next Decade: WiFi (Part 2)

(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.)

Paul Abrahams and Thorold Barker write in Financial Times (April 14, 2002) about how WiFi and 3G are likely to co-exist:

Wi-Fi’s biggest disadvantage is that it is less flexible – consumers must be in a specific place to access services rather than being able to wander around at will. The positive side – laid out by Kent Thexton, chief data and marketing officer of MM0 – is that wireless Lan will get customers used to wireless data services outside the office or home and will help build the overall market. The technologies could then become complementary, with customers using cheaper wireless LAN when they are in a hot spot or need very high data speeds, and premium-priced 3G when on the move.

Amey Stone, writing in Business Week (April 1, 2002), argues that 3G may in fact find it difficult to compete with WiFi:

This grassroots flavor — similar to the bottom-up movement from which the Web itself sprang in the mid-1990s — is what makes Wi-Fi so powerful, say tech analysts and consultants. “This came out of left field,” says Andrew Cole, the global wireless practice leader at Adventis. “Now all the major carriers are sitting up and taking notice.”

This is a vastly different wireless Web than the one the major network operators envisioned. The six big wireless carriers in the U.S. have spent billions on buying spectrum licenses and building 3G networks that can carry data at high speeds. Only 3G will give you a connection to the Internet that’s always open from anywhere — while driving down a lonely back road, for example.

Because Wi-Fi offers faster, cheaper Net connections and is here now, though, it could eat away at what already looks like a smaller-than-anticipated market for 3G data services. “It will be hard for 3G to compete on a price point that makes sense,” says Tom Taulli, author of Tapping Into Wireless. Adds Eric Kintz, associate partner at Roland Berger Strategy Consultants in San Francisco: “There aren’t that many people who need a truly always-on connection” — 3G’s primary selling point. “For most mobile professionals, having wireless access at airports, hotels, and the office is sufficient.”

Writes Kevin Werbach in Release 1.0 on how WiFi can be leveraged to build out community wireless networks:

Unlicensed wireless services open up connectivity. Anyone can connect to a WiFi wireless LAN with a card costing less than $100 (or built into many laptops such as Apple’s Powerbooks). A reasonably sophisticated user can create his or her own home network with an access point costing under $200. And collectives or individuals or small-scale businesses can establish free or commercial public access points almost anywhere. There’s something liberating in the idea that users are taking control of the airwaves, just as dialing into an ISP once felt like a subversion of the dominant telephone companies over whose networks the connections operated.

Already, various cities in US and Europe have WiFi networks being set up by hobbyists and community do-gooders, providing free access in the neighbourhood. Writes Erick Schonfeld in Business 2.0 (April 2002):

A quietly growing legion of wireless guerrillas is using 802.11 — and components ranging from Pringles cans to wire-wrapped plastic tubing — to set up wireless networks in at least 40 U.S. cities, from Seattle to New York to Austin, and many more cities overseas. The dream is to create enough overlapping networks so that wherever you go, you can open a laptop equipped with an 802.11 antenna and hook into high-speed Web access. Some Wi-Fi missionaries are techno utopians who share their high-speed Internet access for free. Others are entrepreneurs setting up for-pay networks in cafes, hotel lobbies, airports, and backcountry towns.

In fact, the Wi-Fi cause may turn out to be a sleeper technological movement — like the Internet itself — that creeps up on the world, gaining adherents without fanfare until it’s suddenly everywhere. The 802.11 wave certainly has a crucial element all sleeper movements share: The utter devotion of a happy band of tinkerers and true believers. And they think they’ve only scratched the surface of what their systems can achieve.

An example of what’s happening in Hawaii is discussed in the same article by Schonfeld.

Stuart Johnson, writing in InfoWorld (March 8, 2002), discusses the convergence between Web services and Wireless, two of the new WWW technologies:

Call it the “W” zone. That’s the point where Web services and wireless technologies converge. As the world moves toward a less hard-wired definition of Web services, our view of the workplace is also changing. Perhaps Microsoft describes it best: In the future, services will be “hung” off individual workers, no matter where they go.

It’s not until you couple Wi-Fi with emerging trends in Web services that the technology becomes truly transformative. That’s because both technologies promise to dramatically reduce IT costs.

For example, instead of wiring buildings for networking, many companies are choosing to implement 802.11b on each floor or in each department, replacing miles of dedicated cable with a handful of access points. Couple that with Web services built using XML and/or Java, and you’ve got a recipe for the future of IT — the ability to deploy flexible, interoperable applications on the Web, communicating easily without much of the manual reprogramming required today.

Web services, Weblogs and Wireless taken together are opening up a new world of opportunities. This time around, India has every opportunity to take up a leadership position, as long as we are willing to envision and invent tomorrow.

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.