Wireless Ubiquity: Connecting the Unconnected
By Howard Baldwin, Contributing Columnist
Every so often in covering the broadband and wireless industry, you run across a statistic that stops you cold. Here’s one: the Leichtman Research Group recently revealed that 1 percent of U.S. households canceled their home Internet service last year in favor of relying on wireless access provided via mobile networks or public Wi-Fi networks.
One percent. That is not a big number. Of course, it’s only a snapshot. The more intriguing question: What will next year’s number be? While the result in and of itself could be a statistical error, what’s more interesting is what it reveals: that it’s becoming easier than ever before to become untethered.
Wireless has become so ubiquitous and reliable that the idea of giving up a land line is now a viable option for a significant number of the population. (Lest you think this is a generational trend, my 70-plus mother-in-law is one of those who gave up her land line.)
The question then becomes: what does wireless ubiquity mean for us in the future?
What the Wireless Numbers Say
Since that one percent figure is admittedly a weak data point, let’s look at some other numbers. PricewaterhouseCoopers and ABI Research recently reported the results of a survey indicating that mobile Internet spending will top home Internet spending in 2013 and widen the gap over the next four years. In 2017, mobile Internet spending will almost be twice as much (approximately $95 billion, compared to $58 billion).
Consider, too, these 3G numbers from Kleiner Perkins analyst Mary Meeker. These are not estimates or forecasts – these are real numbers. In 2011, she reported a 35 percent year-over-year growth in global mobile 3G subscriber growth.
The conclusion is simple: Whether we’re talking about WiFi or 3G, 4G, and LTE, wireless also available almost everywhere – in cafes, throughout airports, and across cities. Some of the time, it’s via a free hotspot.
We’ve talked about broadband as a utility, as important, necessary, and a “right” as water and electricity. Like those utilities, connectivity brings the ability to work faster and more efficiently. In some cases, wireless brings even more than those capabilities.
For one thing, it’s become available astonishingly fast. WiFi was codified in 2000, thirteen years ago. The first city was electrified in 1882 and it wasn’t until 1935 that Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act.
Wireless also brings anywhere access. For those other utilities, you need to find a water fountain or an electrical socket. Wireless also brings unprecedented connectivity. As we’ve noted in other posts, traditionally under-served demographics are using wireless even more than those groups that have gotten access to other utilities first.
What Does Wireless Ubiquity Bring?
I’m not sure I’m smart enough to figure it out the ultimate impact of wireless ubiquity. All I know is that I see a number of technologies colliding and collaborating like yuppie networkers at an 80s cocktail party, creating complex Venn diagrams where they overlap.
Mobility is one of those technologies; mobile data — fed by this ubiquity — is feeding the conversation about big data and social media. That means advances in one area feed advances in others.
What else will the ubiquity of mobility collide with? Education certainly. Will it make people smarter? Sure, people can get access to bad information faster, but they can access good information faster too. Economics? Sure – it’s already doing that in Africa, where farmers have access to better information about crops, weather, and pricing.
As an idealist, I believe mobile and wireless users — no matter what their demographic category — will get access to a wider world, from which they can learn more and do more. How that will change the world in the next dozen years is just part of the mystery of technology.