The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Close to a decade after mobile phone use in the U.S. went mainstream, network coverage is still an issue. No matter which provider you go with, you're going to run into dead zone pockets, or else areas where capacity is so overtaxed that calls are dropped or unable to even commence.

Why? Despite constant construction of new cell towers, there are never enough of them to create a truly continuous blanket of wireless coverage. Geography often gets in the way, with enough natural and manmade obstacles to block signals. And new construction is often difficult, with neighborhoods often opposing the introduction of towers in their backyards.

What's the solution? With wi-fi computer networking approaching ubiquity in commercial and residential areas, handset manufacturers like Motorola and niche telephony providers are looking to utilize that bandwith to offer voice-over-wi-fi, essentially for free.

Naturally, this wouldn't set well with the wireless providers. They've invested billions into their networks, and have been engaging in price wars to grab market share. Now, just when Cingular's acquisition of AT&T Wireless signalled the start of consolidation, this is a new threat to their competitive advantage.

Would wi-fi calling kill off the Verizon Wirelesses and Sprints of the world? I doubt it. Just as the present mobile phone networks can't cover everything, neither can decentralized wi-fi hotspots, no matter how widespread. Even if many of those hotspots are accessible (and not encrypted or otherwise restricted), they're not going to be wholly reliable, and they're not going to be present in many areas (interstate highways, for instance).

I do think that a combination of traditional wireless phone networks and wi-fi clouds would be a great solution. If more devices like Motorola's "switcher" phone become commonplace (perhaps based on Bluetooth technology?), wi-fi would definitely become part of the telecommunications equation.