Digital Convergence: On the Horizon?

Wireless is wireless, right? Not where WiFi and cellular technologies are concerned.

Though consumers and enterprises may express a preference for using a single wireless device that can move seamlessly between WiFi and cellular networks, the wireless industry isn’t ready to offer this capability on a broad scale, according to members of the “Business Issues for Converged Networks” panel at today’s 80211 Planet Conference & Expo.

“Customers today will pay for coverage. They’re less likely to pay for cross-network mobility,” said Kevin Jackson, co-founder and vice president of marketing and product management at Tatara Systems. “We’re not yet near a system where you can be driving along and your phone service is handed off from an access point at Starbucks to a cell-phone tower.”

Cellular service is not as robust as WiFi service when it comes to data transfers, as latency issues inherent in today’s cellular systems. And while WiFi phone systems are hitting the market, they’re not yet ubiquitous enough to be used on a roaming basis.

“There’s no single technology to fit everyone’s needs,” said Russ Freed, CTO of Bridgewater Systems.

Technical issues aside, another roadblock to wireless ubiquity is the lack of a compelling business reason for mobile operators to wholeheartedly enter the WiFi space. “It’s not a business model that makes sense for the mobile operator,” admitted Jackson, who pointed out that mobile operators have spent billions on near-ubiquitous wireless service blanketing large areas. The same model can’t work yet for 80211-based devices, since all 80211 coverage is essentially very local. An example would be T-Mobile, which is implementing WiFi hotspots as a venture separate from its cellular service.

But what T-Mobile does offer — which the panelists agreed was useful for consumers — is a single bill for the various services. In this way convergence is happening on one level for consumers, and as more WiFi vendors adopt back-end systems that support and interact with other cell-oriented billing systems, consumers will be closer to digital convergence.

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