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Wireless Ubiquity: Connecting the Unconnected

June 17, 2013 - 3 Comments

Howard Baldwin - Photograph

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.

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  1. Broadband is different than water and electricity -- you don't need much education to turn on a water tap or push a plug into an electrical outlet. According to Richard Bennett, the issue holding back progress in the U.S. isn't a lack of broadband competition or infrastructure investment; it's the 23% of Americans that are functionally illiterate He seems to raise an interesting point of view. Meaning, if you compared the percent of Americans who were library card holders 15 years ago with the percent that have internet access today, is there a correlation? Moreover, American politicians like to refer to the nation as the "greatest country in the world" and yet a significant part of the adult population is deemed to be functionally illiterate. Great by what measure? Perhaps there are different interpretations of acceptable "global competitiveness" for a developed nation today -- but is it possible that the U.S. broadband market is prematurely saturated because of an apparent 21st Century literacy deficit?

  2. Michael, thank you for sharing your perspective on this topic. The shift away from a monopoly telecom incumbent model has seen mixed success across the globe -- clearly, it's often a complicated transition to a competitive marketplace. Moreover, the mere existence of multiple service providers doesn't always equate to rapid progress. Granted, wireline and wireless infrastructure each have a role in the broadband deployment mix. That being said, when I look to the leading broadband markets around the world, it's apparent that local competition is a key component to advancement, but it's not the only deciding factor. The WEF has recently addressed the need for greater ICT investment in an editorial entitled "How to get the whole world online" -- the incentive is progressive socioeconomic advancement Each nation, region and local market will likely still need to find their own unique mix of ingredients to stimulate investment in the essential infrastructure required to fully participate in the Global Networked Economy.

  3. While well intentioned, this article underscores the nature of the problem. It's jumbling a bunch of different variables, comparing apples with oranges with bananas, etc.... The fact is the vertically integrated service provider model is inherently flawed. It is based on a farcical and fraudulent notion of "natural monopoly" foisted on an unwitting country 100 years ago. It's time to update or network theory. It's time to recognize the horizontal digital forces begun in the 1980s and 1990s and their impact and inevitable trajectory. To even think wired is different from wireless is unfortunate. In fact cutting the chord to use mostly 802.11 access is a perfect example of the linkage between the two and the flaws in the wired and wireless service provider models. If one thinks about it, our wired and wireless infrastructure today are about where dirt roads and blimps and propeller plains were in the 1920s relative to their superhighway and jet aircraft descendants. The only problem is that the technology (google fiber and 802.11ac) are already capable of supporting information superhighways and jet aviation. It's the service provider models that are keeping us on telecom dirt roads and share-cropper like mobile systems.