How Wi-Fi saved 3G from the iPhone

John C. Tanner
12 Jun 2009

Five or six years ago, everyone was arguing over whether Wi-Fi hotspots were going to kill 3G. Remember that? As you'll recall, 3G wasn't that widespread in 2003-2004, or all that impressive in terms of data speeds.

Wi-Fi hot spots weren't all that widespread either, and its cheap costs were offset by extremely limited coverage and expensive backhaul. But hot spots grew like crazy anyway, offering tens of Megabits worth of "real" Internet connectivity, prompting talk of dual-mode Wi-Fi/3G handsets and fears of Wi-Fi cannibalizing 3G revenues.

In 2009, we have hundreds of thousands of hot spots and dozens of Wi-Fi-enabled smartphones. And we have 3.5G and Wimax. And Wi-Fi has apparently grown to be their greatest ally.

On the Wimax side, for example, take Malaysian Wimax player PacketOne, which demonstrated its network capabilities via a bus tour Johor Bahru on the eve of the Wimax Forum Asia event in April.

P1 offers a CPE box that uses Wimax for the backhaul and Wi-Fi for the actual access link. It also offers a dual-mode dongle for outdoor users that not only supports both Wimax and Wi-Fi, but can actually hand off live IP sessions between them, using MobileIP to create a virtual IP address that allows the device's client software to determine which connection is sufficient for the session and switch without interruption.

Certainly the spectacle of Wi-Fi/Wimax handoff begs the question: what's the point, especially since Wimax was conceived in part to make public Wi-Fi obsolete by addressing its chief weakness of limited coverage?

Kelvin Lee, senior GM of solutions provider Green Packet (which owns P1) says the answer is simple enough: traffic offload.

"You can do all sorts off apps on Wimax - downloads, video streams, VoIP," he told The Signal. "But that takes up bandwidth, and if everyone's doing that, you'll have congestion. So if your device sees a Wi-Fi hotspot, it'll move to it automatically and free up resources on the macro network."

In other words, Wi-Fi hot spots in cafe and food courts could be transformed into the equivalent of public femtocells.

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