It's one of the most transformational changes of our time, but like me we all take it for granted. WiFi is everywhere.
Cars are about to become hotspots. Most online use of the Apple iPad is expected to be at hotspots. Cities across the country are building WiFi networks, and even cellular carriers say the only way to meet demand is to piggyback on WiFi.
Much of this change has happened over just the last few years. I believe the iPhone has driven it. An iPhone will automatically seek out WiFi. WiFi is faster than the 3G networks the iPhone is tied to. It also costs less. So we seek it out.
Devices like the iPhone cause WiFi to make sense in places it never made sense before, like highway rest stops. So WiFi is going into places it never went before.
It can justify your purchase of a WiFi router, even if your home is already wired and you only had one PC.
I have watched this change in my own suburban neighborhood. Where once there were just one or two networks within reach, now there are a half-dozen. I sit down in my local coffee shop and find I'm within range of hotspots at three adjacent restaurants as well, along with a municipal system.
Paid WiFi is going the way of the dodo, because the bandwidth cost is easily justified by increased coffee sales. Or (as in this case) a public service.
This is true because all hotspots are, in fact, quick connections to the wired Internet. A coffee shop owner uses the same broadband connection his cash register may use, connects it to a $40 router, and he's in the WiFi "business." And with ubiquitous standards like 802.1g, or especially emerging standards like 802.11n, which runs at 100 Mbps, the signal goes as fast as the wired connection.
All of which leads to a simple idea.
ZDNet Government blogger Doug Hanchard recently quoted FCC chairman Julius Genachowski
(above) on the growing shortage of bandwidth, and the power of WiFi:
The market for WiFi network equipment alone is about $4 billion a year, and analysts project the market for WiFi-enabled health products will reach $5 billion by 2014. This is what people used to call the “junk band” until the FCC released it for unlicensed use and innovators got to work.
Instead of doing what the carriers want, turning old TV stations and unused government spectrum into a private good sold through a Government Spectrum Ownership Corp., why not release more for use by services like WiFi?
It's true that not everything works for WiFi. I am not proposing we get rid of the carriers. But if carriers find WiFi the most efficient way to move traffic onto the wired Internet, why not just follow their example?