Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Interest in Mobile WiFi Hotspots Fuels New Solutions

J. Gerry Purdy 

  • The next-generation WiFi hotspot initiative will provide multiple-gigabit transmissions, allow roaming like cellular, and provide automatic authentication and log-on.Most WiFi in use today is indoors (at a home or office), but there is growing use of WiFi in an outdoor setting. Remember when there were a number of municipalities that tried to create WiFi networks that would support an entire city? Most of these failed because the majority of devices were being used indoors where other (often free) options prevailed.
    More recently, operators such as AT&T are installing outdoor WiFi networks in major cities for two reasons: First, operators are trying to offload the high demand created by the explosion of smartphone devices such as the iPhone and tablets such as the iPad; and second, these more mobile devices are used more outdoors than just inside locations such as airports and retail outlets. The simple fact is that WiFi provides access to tremendous bandwidth, and it is in AT&T's best interest to have users download movies, TV shows and music with their WiFi network than with their cellular network.
    There's growing interest in mobile WiFi routers where a small device such as the MiFi from Novatel, the Overdrive from Sprint or the Personal Hotspot on the iPhone enables WiFi for up to (typically) five mobile devices. These mobile hotspots then connect to the cellular network on the back end. These mobile routers do provide easy access in remote locations where standard WiFi is not typically available but cellular is. The newer 4G models provide back-end access via LTE, which operates close to basic cable or DSL.
    Hardware-based mobile routers have to typically be set up with a power adapter as their batteries don't last more than 2 to 3 hours (in my tests). And that results in yet another device to carry around. I believe that more people will opt to utilize the mobile hotspot in their smartphone than bother carrying around another device and paying for an additional data plan.
    Connectify (a MobileTrax client) offers a software mobile hotspot for Windows laptops and Android devices that requires no additional hardware. With one click, users can start a Connectify mobile hotspot on their laptop that allows up to nine WiFi-enabled devices to connect and share Internet access. The speed of the back end is whatever is available to the Windows laptop or Android device.

    Connectify offers a software mobile hotspot for Windows laptops and Android devices that requires no additional hardware.
    Connectify has realized over 4.5 million downloads and now offers a Pro version ($29.99) that includes easy-to-use firewall control over connected clients and can maintain connectivity by intelligently choosing the best available Internet connection at any given time. And the company has received a recent investment from In-Q-Tel, the investment arm of the CIA, to add robust security and develop an enterprise version (think government agencies and large private companies).
    There is growing interest in connecting via WiFi directly between devices. This has particular appeal when running games between multiple local users (think students running a game locally in the dorm) or when people need to exchange large files (think sending a 50GB file using the 50M-bps link locally rather than going through the Internet that would slow down the transmission). Wi-Fi Direct is the standard being created for these direct connections.  Software like Connectify enables Wi-Fi Direct so that information is kept locally when the need is only to transfer information between one or more local devices.
    There are a number of new venues that are implementing mobile hotspots, including automobiles (providing WiFi access to the passengers), airplanes (e.g., GoGo service on many U.S. flights), trains (AMTRAK provides this on many routes) and machine-to-machine (such as a network of vending machines that use one cellular connection).

    What does the future hold for WiFi? It's certain that there will be millions of additional WiFi routers creating hotspots and what I call "warmspots" in which a home or office WiFi router is set up to provide for public access. The fastest-growing segment will be mobile hotspots in which tens of millions of smartphones and tablets will enable WiFi connectivity for WiFi-enabled devices nearby. This will be provided either via proprietary solutions by the manufacturer or more generic and open solutions by software providers such as Connectify.
    There is already work under way to create multiple gigabit WiFi using 60GHz. And the Next Generation Hotspot (802.11u) initiative offers to provide a number of advanced WiFi features, including:
    • Ability to roam from one hotspot to another much like you can today with a mobile phone where you can roam from one hotspot to another and stay connected.
    • Automatic log-on so that your mobile device will automatically log on to the hotspot without the user having to authenticate or provide an access password.
    • Carrier-grade networks that have a rich infrastructure so that the hotspots are reliable and always available.
    The primary purpose of these advanced WiFi networks is to provide low-cost, high-bandwidth data access. Billions of smartphones and tablets will drive access to these advanced next-generation WiFi networks.
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