In Business Model, Internet Access, Mobile, Spectrum

For decades, observers have wondered and speculated about whether Wi-Fi could be a substitute for mobile data access.

Now we might have to ask the reverse question: under what conditions is mobile access a functional substitute for Wi-Fi?

The new question comes as all four leading U.S. mobile operators now offer unlimited usage plans. To be sure, none of the plans is “truly” unlimited. After a certain amount of usage, users will find themselves throttled, in terms of top speed. The other push might come with 5G.

Cisco, in fact, already believes 5G usage will reverse recent trends, and see mobile access growing at the expense of Wi-Fi. Tariffs likely will prove to be the driver. At suitable pricing levels, users simply will not have incentives to use Wi-Fi for offload.

Also, not every account needs, nor will every consumer benefit from, unlimited access. For many, though, the new unlimited feature might mean less value for Wi-Fi offloading. In India, for example, new 4G networks now mean mobile is faster than Wi-Fi.

Still, more Wi-Fi spectrum is coming. In the U.S. market, the Federal Communications Commission, for example,  is releasing about 7 GHz of new unlicensed spectrum  for use.

Ofcom, the United Kingdom communications regulator, has decided to authorize an additional 125 MHz of capacity for Wi-Fi  in the 5-GHz band (5725 GHz to 5850 GHz). That is the first step in what might be additional actions, including allowing Wi-Fi use in the 5850-MHz to 5925 MHz band now used to support mobile operations.

The additional spectrum will allow for wider channels, which should improve bandwidth efficiency and support higher speeds. The number of 80 MHz channels will increase from four to six. Three additional 40 MHz channels and six additional 20 MHz channels would also be available.

Ofcom also says itg could open up spectrum for Wi-Fi at 5350-MHz to 5470-MHz band as well.  

Ironically, moves to add more Wi-Fi spectrum in the millimeter wave bands in the U.S. market are happening at the same time that all four leading U.S. mobile service providers now are offering unlimited use plans. In principle, that means some customers might no longer have an incentive to switch access to Wi-Fi, since doing so does not save money or improve user experience (Wi-Fi tends to be slower than 4G).   

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