For years, "Wi-Fi" has been synonymous with "wireless" for the majority of laptop users looking to connect on the go.
Recently, mobile broadband – the kind of wireless you use for surfing the Internet and checking email on your cell phone – has been growing fast. A study from comScore, for example, found that mobile broadband use rose by 154 per cent in 2007.
Some observers, most recently Ericsson Chief Marketing Officer Johan Bergendahl, predicted that Wi-Fi will go the way of the analog modem to be replaced by mobile broadband, although not everyone agrees.
Will mobile broadband kill Wi-Fi and replace it? The answer is no. An exciting new wireless model is suddenly emerging that combines mobile broadband and Wi-Fi to get the advantages of both.
Mobile broadband gives you far more places where you can connect, enabling Internet access just about anywhere your cell phone can make calls. Wi-Fi, on the other hand, is often easier and connects to a larger number of devices.
Wi-Fi is traditionally used to enable nearby users to connect to a home DSL or cable net connection, or a business T1 line or other cabled, non-wireless connection via the company network. But a new generation of products is hanging that Wi-Fi access point on the end of a mobile broadband connection.
Who's combining mobile broadband with Wi-Fi?
Chrysler announced this week that it will add in-car Wi-Fi as a standard feature on some models. Car owners will need a mobile broadband connection (billed separately), and electronics in the car radios will open that connection to other devices in and near the car via Wi-Fi.
New software called WalkingHotspot, unveiled this week by TapRoot Systems Inc, enables owners of Symbian S60 or Windows Mobile smart phones to share their 3G connection with nearby devices via Wi-Fi.
A line of products from iBox2Go launched in January provides mobile broadband connectivity to the Internet, plus a Wi-Fi router that enables up to 10 users to share the connection.
The CradlePoint PHS300 Personal Hotspot is a little box that you connect to your phone to create your own Wi-Fi network. A new software update issued this week extends support to include EV-DO and HSDPA devices.
All these products are new, and all involve the use of Wi-Fi to share a mobile broadband connection. A trend? Absolutely, and one that points to a new way to use your cell phone.
The coming wave of 'hot spot phones'
Two obvious trends – Wi-Fi access point electronics are getting smaller and mobile broadband is getting faster – will result in another inevitable outcome: The use of cell phones as Wi-Fi hot spots. Call them "hot spot phones."
The CradlePoint PHS300, for example, is 4.7" x 2.8" x 0.8" and weighs just four ounces. It's already smaller than some cell phones. It's only a matter of time before handset-makers start building Wi-Fi access points into cell phones.
Business travellers will be able to simply turn on the Wi-Fi function on their cell phones, then connect via that phone over Wi-Fi with the laptop and other devices. Groups will be able to share the cell phone's connection.
This is also, by the way, one way to solve the problem of low network connectivity in poor neighbourhoods. The city of Houston, for example, plans to spend US$3.5 million to build conventional Wi-Fi hot spots in poor neighbourhoods throughout the city as a way to bridge the "digital divide" between low-income families and everyone else. The problem is that Wi-Fi penetration is very low in these areas.
Unfortunately, the Wi-Fi infrastructure Houston is planning to build will be very expensive, and costs will be high even if nobody uses the networks.
Although Wi-Fi penetration is low among low-income people, cell phone ownership is relatively high. A super efficient way to bring Wi-Fi to low-income people would be to Wi-Fi-enable their existing phones. This is just one of the many problems that could best be solved by Wi-Fi enabling cell phones.
Will Wi-Fi dominate the future of wireless? Or will mobile broadband dominate? The answer is yes! And it's only a matter of time before your cell phone becomes a Wi-Fi access point.