What the move from Wi-Fi to cellular data means for businesses

The bandwidth race is over – at least for consumers. There was a time when the tech world would rejoice at the latest improvement in their dial-up modem. Modem upgrades would mean you could download that JPEG image in only 50 seconds. Amazingly the ITU Telecommunication Standardization Sector was able to squeeze our copper lines to 56k (under perfect conditions) and we all hoped for a day where ISDN would be standard (64k).

Only that day didn’t have to arrive. The bandwidths our senses can consume do not seem to keep pace with the connectivity speeds our devices can deliver. App developers too have a limit to how much bandwidth they need.

Even YouTube and Netflix are showing 4K videos now, but 4K TVs rarely see any action outside of electronics stores. It’s easy to forget that the first iPhone spent 345 days on the market without 3G capabilities. Back in the dark days of 2008, iPhone users were much like the coffee shop laptop user today – ever searching for a Wi-Fi hotspot they can connect to.

>See also: Fix indoor coverage or lose my business, consumers warn mobile operators

Rising cellular usage

But things have changed. Wi-Fi is being surpassed by cellular.

4G networks can provide huge bandwidth, easily surpassing those of 802.11b and even 802.11g that are used in the majority of Wi-Fi hotspots today.

Not only that, but users do not really enjoy the experience of being connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot. Spotty coverage, captive portal redirection, falling cellular costs and Wi-Fi security concerns lead many users to rely solely on cellular data.

Cisco predicts that between 2014 and 2019 smartphone devices will be using almost five times more cellular data from a combination of faster networks, busier apps, with less reliance on Wi-Fi usage.

While cellular standards have been fast to adapt, Wi-Fi networks still languish in legacy standards. Wi-Fi devices still support 802.11 standards dating back to 1997.

Upgrades to the Wi-Fi eco-system require upgrades to devices and access points but the uptake is slow. There is a lot of sunk cost for infrastructure in the walls and ceilings of office buildings and airports that is hard to undo. Aruba and Netgear have both noted slow adoption of new Wi-Fi standards.

Wi-Fi networks also come with their own security vulnerabilities. Wigle.net shows that there is a surprisingly large number of open and WEP-protected networks that can easily be hacked.

Cellular networks on the other hand, have constantly improved their network security and barring alleged government vulnerability seeding, they are far more secure.

A forced hand

These arguments of greater bandwidth, poor performance and security problems would alone explain why cellular data is stealing share off Wi-Fi. But this only accounts for the conscious decision to switch. What about where they are forced?

The launch of iOS9 last month saw the introduction of Wi-Fi Assist, which automatically connects devices to cellular networks when Wi-Fi signal is low or lost. On the face of it, this is a sensible capability – seek the stronger option and latch onto it. But what if the user wanted to use Wi-Fi for a reason?

If this switch over to cellular is happening automatically and the device is unilaterally identifying when to abandon Wi-Fi, the user is likely to be completely unaware of the increased data usage and potentially overage costs racking up.

Within two weeks of iOS 9 being launched, enterprise customers reported that iOS 9 users were using 20-30% more data since the update from iOS 8. In several instances, this appears to be caused by the automatic activation of Wi-Fi Assist in locations where corporate Wi-Fi was in fact available, and the user probably thought it was being used, but it was overloaded or patchy and so it was abandoned. It’s one thing to have to pay for cellular connectivity on the move, but while in the office too?

>See also: What does your Wi-Fi say about your employees?

Cost of switching

Employees might be justified in their search for better connection, and in their decision to opt for 3G and 4G over many Wi-Fi options. They may even by unaware of their “choice”. But this inevitably means that carrier plans are being eaten into faster.

Mobility is a cost of doing business, and if that mobility is increasingly predicated on cellular data as the alternative is not fit for purpose, then what is the CIO’s option?

Data and plans cannot just be left to run out and be exceeded, with a sigh of resignation. CIOs need to grasp hold of the data being consumed and control the clearly unnecessary data-consuming activities with policies and caps, and limit the data burden of the legitimate remainder with compression.


Sourced from Eldar Tuvey, Wandera

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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