There’s no longer any question that broadband wireless has a bright future. Municipalities in the U.S. and Canada have rolled out public Wi-Fi networks to make themselves more attractive to businesses and tech-savvy citizens. In Ontario, hydro companies are looking at wireless as a potential backhaul system for the smart meters mandated by the provincial government. And with Wi-Max and its promise of high-speed wireless links over longer distances than Wi-Fi just around the corner, the possibility that mobile workers may be able to log on to the Internet or the corporate network from anywhere no longer looks like a pipe dream.

The one major hurdle wireless still needs to overcome is the convergence of broadband wireless with lower bandwidth cellular networks. Part of the wireless/cellular convergence challenge is technical. Devices that would run on both networks would have to have dual-mode capability to be able to operate on either a broadband wireless or cellular network. For smaller devices, like cell phones, to take advantage of broadband wireless, they’d also require less power-intensive circuitry than what’s available now. Equipment manufacturuers are working on both problems now, so the basic technical challenges of merging broadband wireless and cellular shouldn’t be a major barrier to wireless convergence. Ultimately what’s required is some form of billing that would let the major wireless carriers recoup some of their costs even if their subscribers are racking up minutes over a public wireless broadband connection. Without a billing compromise, technology advances in the convergence of cellular and wireless broadband won’t mean a lot.Text

The bigger barrier is the cellular carriers. Companies like Bell Mobility, Telus Mobility and Rogers Wireless have sunk millions of dollars into building out their cellular networks, acquiring subscribers and buying up next-generation (3G) wireless gear that offers higher throughput than older cellular networks (but still significantly slower speeds than broadband wireless). Cellular carriers bill users for calls made over the cellular networks. At the moment, there’s no way for cellular carriers to bill for voice calls or data sessions over public wireless broadband networks. So there’s little incentive for wireless providers to offer subscribers dual-mode devices that would use low-cost, high-bandwidth wireless broadband pipes when available and rely on the regular cellular network only when necessary.

It’s tough to imagine how broadband wireless will flourish without the support of the cellular carriers. The cellular carriers have brand recognition and well-established business models on their side. Any company that wanted to compete with the cellular carriers on voice would have to spend a small fortune on voice and billing systems, even if they had access to a widespread public broadband wireless network.Then again, it’s hard to believe the cellular providers could get away with ignoring broadband wireless entirely. If given a choice of using a broadband wireless network or a cellular network for data connections, users will probably go with the higher-speed option, which in most cases will be broadband wireless.

Ultimately what’s required is some form of billing that would let the major wireless carriers recoup some of their costs even if their subscribers are racking up minutes over a public wireless broadband connection. Without a billing compromise, technology advances in the convergence of cellular and wireless broadband won’t mean a lot.

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