Wi-Fi’s Not Dead (Yet), But Operators Still Need to Prepare for Other Options

After sitting at the top of the heap for several years, Wi-Fi’s position as a leading connectivity tool is being threatened by upstart technologies that some believe will be better suited to meet today’s data demands. Solutions like LTE-Unlicensed (LTE-U) and LTE Multicast are coming on strong with significant value propositions that offer tangible benefits and compelling alternatives for many, and some operators are wondering if their significant Wi-Fi investments will soon be worthless.

To all of the operators out there: relax. Take a breath. In the words of Douglas Adams, “Don’t panic.” But, by all means, do get ready. Because although Wi-Fi is still king — and will remain so for the foreseeable future — there are reasons to get excited, and prepare, for LTE-U and LTE Multicast.

Both of these technologies have very distinct features that set them apart from Wi-Fi’s current capabilities. LTE-U addresses the need for a shared ecosystem that takes advantage of existing LTE networks deployed in both licensed bands and ecosystems and is able to be deployed on unlicensed spectrum — a unique selling point. LTE Multicast offers a potent solution that allows for seamless delivery of content — particularly video — to thousands of people simultaneously using a single stream. It’s a standard that can coexist with already existing LTE, allowing various services to be delivered to enterprises and consumers, including voice and data.

In theory, all of this sounds great, and it probably will be — someday. However, this is a case where the hype has somewhat surpassed reality. The truth is, we are still quite a while away from LTE-U and LTE Multicast usurping the throne on which Wi-Fi sits.

Part of the reason is simply the fact that, while the cellular market is growing, it’s not necessarily growing at a rate that would immediately require the mass adoption of LTE-U and LTE Multicast. According to the latest comScore reports, there are fewer than 200 million U.S. smartphone owners, a number that’s growing every few months by single digit percentage points. That’s obviously a lot of users, but the single digit percentage growth indicates that it will be a long time before U.S. smartphone penetration reaches a level that makes services like LTE-U and LTE Multicast truly necessary. We are talking not months, but years, during which time Wi-Fi will continue to fill the needs of most enterprises and consumers.

There are also other barriers, particularly in terms of LTE-U adoption. Like those pertaining to any new technology entering an established market, they are significant. I’ll explore those barriers in my next post.

Shervin Gerami

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