While wandering around midtown Manhattan last Thursday afternoon, I was attempting to keep track of the Yankees opening day game versus the Tigers via the MLB.com At Bat 2011 app on my iPhone. As you can imagine, data reception sucked; several times, the app told me it couldn't access the network. Thanks again, AT&T.
I thought for a second about using my iPad by connecting to a local Wi-Fi network. But first I would have had to have identified a public network, then hope Safari could handle the interstitial sign-up pages (which it often can't). Even if I connected successfully, once I wandered out of that particular hotspot coverage area into another I'd have to go through the entire Wi-Fi hotspot location, identification and sign-up rigmarole.
I pocketed my iPhone and just poked my head into the varying bars along my walking route to keep track of the action.
Perhaps once the HSPA-Plus "4G" iPhone 5 likely coming later this summer might alleviate some of AT&T's data network problems. In a year, however, local Wi-Fi hotspots could be as easy to connect to as a cell network, thanks to an almost ignored announcement last month concerning a new set of Wi-Fi specifications.
3D cellphones and new tablets seemed to be the take-away from the CTIA wireless show in Orlando last month. But the biggest — and seemingly most ignored — bit of news came from the Wi-Fi Alliance, innocuously entitled "Wi-Fi Certified Hotspot Program to Ease Subscriber Connectivity in Service Provider Wi-Fi Hotspots."
The Alliance hopes to make connecting to a local Wi-Fi hotspot as seamless as cellphone roaming. If successful, the repercussions could be startling for device makers, hotspot providers and cellular carriers, completely reconstructing the business and consumer paradigms of mobile broadband connectivity.
Oh, and it'd make our mobile connectivity lives a lot easier.
Hook Me Up, Baby!
Wi-Fi's big problem is its proprietary locality. We've all turned on the Wi-Fi on a cellphone, laptop, tablet, et al, when we're away from home, hoping to find a public or unprotected Wi-Fi network to latch onto among the dozens of networks the device detects. As my — and probably a lot of your — experiences indicated, connecting to Wi-Fi away from home is a level 10 headache.
What the Wi-Fi Alliance is proposing is Wi-Fi ibuprofen — a set of universal connectivity specifications all Wi-Fi hotspot providers and device makers would adopt. Once implemented, these specification would foster the kinds of business partnerships between hotspot providers and cell carriers similar to those between airlines, hotels and car rental companies.
What would result is your Wi-Fi device would automatically locate and connect to a local Wi-Fi signal without you even thinking about it, along with the handoff from one hotspot to another, with any billing handled by your cell carrier instead of you having to sign in and input your credit card number each time.
Brave New Wi-Fi World
Stitching together the disparate Wi-Fi hotspots into an almost seamless network will have multiple benefits. Bear in mind, this is all just off the top of my head. The full range of benefits — perhaps even the greatest of the bunch — may only be revealed if this glorious Wi-Fi future comes to pass.
Over-burdened cell data networks could have a huge load lifted from them if your phone could latch on to a Wi-Fi site instead. Carriers could lift any data caps they have or may implement, and you'd be able to make a lot more VoIP calls.
You wouldn't need a 3G tablet if you can seamlessly connect to any Wi-Fi hotspot.
And all digital cameras (not just a few Samsung models) would now be able to connect to the net and transmit your photos just like your cellphone — only these would be much better pictures, naturally — with no need for an Eye-Fi card.
These examples just scratch the surface of how our wireless world will change once Wi-Fi connectivity requires no work on our part.
The Alliance won't have universal hotspot connectivity certification testing underway until the middle of next year, so we still have a ways to go to determine billing logistics. I'd imagine your cell carrier would simply add a "Wi-Fi minutes" option your cell plan alongside voice, data and text options. I'll assume — always dangerous, I know — that you'd tell your Wi-Fi device who your cell carrier is and set some sort of connectivity priority when both free public sites and paid hotspots are detected.
Of course the ramifications of this brave new no-brainer Wi-Fi connectivity world is not all roses, puppies and rainbows. I'm sure I'm not the only one a bit cynical about already monopolistic cell carriers figuring out more ways to squeeze more dollars out of us once Wi-Fi connectivity and billing falls under their less-than altruistic sway.
But overall I can't wait to not have to think about my mobile Wi-Fi connectivity issues, and can concentrate on more important things — like how the Yankees are doing.