Wireless Internet Reviews

Hotspots vs. Mobile Broadband

It has become a common sight for the trendy techie to set up shop in a local Starbucks, laptop on the table next to the cappuccino, wirelessly connected to the Internet. Of course, said techie is furiously surfing the Internet, doing something no doubt incredibly important, making huge business deals, or setting up a socially relevant web site.


Is their work so important that it can’t wait for them to finish their coffee? Probably not, but it doesn’t stop them. Many other restaurants and coffee shops, airports, hotels, and even a few municipalities have joined the ranks of Starbucks in offering Wi-Fi hotspots to customers, and the trend shows no signs of abating.

Coupled with the Wi-Fi trend is the fact that smartphones and other mobile devices are now offering Internet access as well, giving consumers the ability to check email and Google their friends from anywhere in the country. The incredible popularity of the Apple iPhone has brought wireless mobile Internet to the forefront, although they were certainly not the first to offer it.

For years, the BlackBerry has been the quintessential business tool for the busy executive, enhancing the old stereotype of the successful businessperson shouting at someone in Japanese on a cell phone in a crowded restaurant. That successful businessperson’s cell phone now screams out at him or her, as it sits on the table next to the dessert menu, “You’ve got mail!”

Newer smartphones and multifunction devices based on Google’s Android platform will once again take this to the next level, providing a new type of device that can run several third-party applications and be used with any service. Such devices could use public access points (Wi-Fi or otherwise) conceivably not just for Internet access, but for other services including making Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone calls.

WIFIMobile broadband addresses a different need than Wi-Fi hotspots, although it may well ultimately replace them. A Wi-Fi hotspot, typically found in places like airports, coffee shops or hotels, is designed to provide Internet access in limited areas, usually up to around 100 meters.

If you run a local coffee shop and want to give your patrons Internet access, 100 meters is all you need. Mobile broadband standards, most notably WiMAX (IEEE 802.16), however, provide wireless access at high speeds for up to 30 miles.

Wi-Fi’s Triumph

It is widely used and has emerged as a mature standard, easy and inexpensive to implement, with several practical applications. But it is not without its competitors, and there are several similar standards that address slightly different needs. Wi-Fi is primarily used for providing Web and email access in limited campus environments, but it is less practical in other areas.

Machine-to-machine (M2M) connectivity represents an enormous market, but the ZigBee standard addresses this one quite nicely. Wi-Fi would be impractical in this application because of the high level of system resources that is required. And while Wi-Fi is often used to create home LANs, it is less practical for other types of home networks such as home automation networks (ZigBee is again the preferred standard in this area).

Wi-Fi has however, been instrumental in the move away from wires. Almost every notebook today comes equipped with Wi-Fi, and many home networks that are being set up today rely on Wi-Fi for connectivity rather than the traditional wired hub.

Is it Secure?

Many modern notebooks and desktops come equipped with Wi-Fi built-in, and the first thing one will notice when turning it on is that there are often a surprising number of wireless networks within close proximity, especially if you are in a big city. And most of them are unsecured.

You may be able to see your neighbor’s home network, or even that of a neighboring business, and you may even be able to piggyback on their Internet access. It’s not recommended—besides being unethical, it’s just not practical to get your Internet access this way. And what about when you’re sitting in that coffee shop, surfing the Web off of their free Internet? Is that guy over there in the corner with the lip ring and tattoos looking in on your email?

Using a Wi-Fi hotspot without taking any precautions ahead of time may be risky, but there are several things you can do to lessen the risk, most notably, just being careful about using passwords and account numbers, especially on web sites that are not protected by SSL. Keep in mind too, that free hotspots often use no security at all. That’s not to say that security is not possible using Wi-Fi, and if you are installing Wi-Fi at home, you can use either WEP or WPA to keep your neighbors from seeing those love notes you send to your sweetie every night by email.

Wi-Fi’s security vulnerabilities are also at the heart of so-called “war driving,” in which hackers drive around in a car, pointing a homemade antenna out the window, attempting (often with great success) to break into peoples’ home networks. In these cases, the goal isn’t just to piggyback on somebody else’s Internet access for free, but rather, to break into computers and steal passwords and account numbers for the purpose of identity theft.

WiMAX, on the other hand, is much more inherently secure from the beginning. The standard also allows for individual implementations to add extra security features as needed—recognizing that for example, a hospital that must comply with HIPAA regulationsneeds a lot more security than some other types of businesses.

The basic difference is in the level of responsibility assigned to the individual user, and the telecom company provisioning the service. With home users relying on Wi-Fi to network home computers, the responsibility is largely on the individual to provide security (but it is often ignored); a WiMAX service provisions service to the home and the carrier takes the greater share of responsibility for securing the connection.

Addressing Different Needs

Much debate revolves around whether mobile broadband options such as WiMAX will replace Wi-Fi, although in truth, the two different technologies serve two distinctly separate needs. Wi-Fi is best used for short distances in small LANs or to provide hotspots in smaller, confined areas like coffeehouses. There have been attempts to use Wi-Fi in city-wide coverage (see section below), although these have been spectacular failures.

WiMAX is a longer-haul technology that can be used to blanket entire cities. Both offer users greater mobility in one way or another. Having said that though, it is very possible that WiMAX would render Wi-Fi obsolete if it becomes as widespread as Sprint and others expect. There would be no need to connect to that Starbucks Wi-Fi link if you can carry your WiMAX connection with you wherever you go.

Municipal Coverage

Web surfing at the airportWi-Fi has been most successful in providing Internet access to small areas, such as airports or hotels, and in home networks. There have however, been a few experiments in providing municipal Wi-Fi, which attempts to provide Internet access to entire cities. Most such experiments however, have been failures.

The premise behind such municipal experiments in places like Chicago and San Francisco is that the service would be free. The assumption is that residents would want to use the free service, and that there would be money from some source (such as advertising) to allow the infrastructure to be built out.

Neither assumption turned out to be correct, and many telecom providers have canceled their municipal contracts, having realized that there is virtually no way for them to become profitable. And of course the biggest obstacle in providing municipal Wi-Fi, especially in a big city, is that the transmitters themselves have short ranges of only about 200 feet, and provisioning that many access points is often impractical and more expensive than anticipated.

WiMAX, on the other hand, has a more solid business approach to providing municipal Internet access. Providers such as Sprint make no pretense about providing it as a free service, but if successful, the access will be able to afford coverage over a wide area at higher speeds, without having to build out so many access points, since the range of WiMAX is significantly greater than Wi-Fi.

The Future of Mobile Access

One factor that will increase the demand for mobile access is the inevitable creation of smartphones and multifunction devices that are not contractually tied to one particular carrier’s service. Google’s Android platform holds great promise for opening up this market, and creating a wealth of portable multifunction devices that can connect to any type of mobile service.

While both Wi-Fi and WiMAX have their own special advantages and sweet spots, one thing is clear, and that is that mobile access is highly desirable, and users are no longer tied to the cable coming out of the wall. The demand for mobile access will be even greater in the next few years, making the provisioning of mobile access a tremendously profitable opportunity for telecommunications carriers as well as manufacturers of mobile hardware.