Thursday, October 04, 2007

Wi-Fi: A 'feature' or a 'technology'?

A research company sent me the outline of a report on the global mobile device market. In it, they promoted the fact that they had a comprehensive list of market statistics that could be divided up by region, handset tier, by technology and by feature.

The ‘technologies’ listed included the usual RAN suspects: GSM, GPRS, EDGE, CDMA ..., HSxPA, WiMAX, LTE,...

The ‘features’ listed the same usual suspects: email, IM, camera, video, MP3, GPS, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi.

This got me thinking: Is Wi-Fi a ‘feature’ or a ‘technology’?

For any non-UMA-enabled dual-mode phone, the answer is clear that Wi-Fi is a feature. The iPhone, any Nokia E series, or Wi-Fi enabled HTC devices all list Wi-Fi as a feature. This is because Wi-Fi is not essential to the operation of the device. These are essentially GSM mobile phones, and the addition of (or lack of) Wi-Fi does not impact the core capability of the device (the ability to make a phone call).

Sure, the iPhone has gotten close to ‘seamless integration’ of Wi-Fi as a *feature* on a device, but I’m sure there’s a large percentage of people who never use the Wi-Fi ‘feature’ or who only use it infrequently.

I contrast this with a UMA-enabled dual-mode Wi-Fi device. In this case, Wi-Fi is used every day. Any time the subscriber is at home or even in the office, the phone is connected to Wi-Fi. Not that the subscriber has to know or care, but Wi-Fi is actually rather essential to the operation of the device. When attached to Wi-Fi, voice services, SMS, MMS, all mobile services are delivered over the Wi-Fi radio.

Certainly for people who acquired a UMA-enabled device to ensure coverage in the home, this is a fundamental requirement and therefore is not just a ‘feature’, but more of a core ‘technology’ of the handset.

I think it’s fair to compare the operation of a UMA-enabled dual-mode phone with the operation of an equally ‘dual-mode’ phone: 3G. I say ‘dual-mode’ because all 3G phones come with 2G RAN technology as well. A subscriber using a 3G phone doesn’t spend too much timing thinking about whether the phone is connected to the 2G or 3G network. The phone just works. The subscriber doesn’t expect there to be any service interruption or disruption that comes from a 3G/2G device. Frankly, this is exactly how Wi-Fi/UMA works in a ‘dual-mode’ phone as well.

I know that T-Mobile with their HotSpot @Home service does not consider Wi-Fi to be a ‘feature’. For T-Mobile, Wi-Fi (with UMA) is a core RAN technology. It is literally a second RAN technology. T-Mobile has a nationwide 2.5G network, and by rolling out HotSpot @Home, they now have a second RAN technology.

Perhaps the definition is that Wi-Fi by itself is a ‘feature’, but UMA-enabled Wi-Fi is a RAN ‘technology’.

I think this gets down to a core issue that the market isn’t seeing. The operators who are doing UMA/Wi-FI aren’t doing it because it’s an interesting feature, they are doing it as a second (or third in the case of Orange) RAN technology.

We have always said “UMA is a parallel access network,” but it’s clear this message isn’t getting through.

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