Rory Cellan-Jones

Which way to the mobile web?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 30 Sep 08, 08:50 GMT

How do you get the mobile internet? Via wi-fi - or perhaps through one of those dongles that you plug into a laptop?

Man using laptopWi-fi and 3G have been battling it out for the last few years to be the technology that keeps you connected on the move. But today 3G gets a big boost, with the unveiling of an alliance between leading computer manufacturers and mobile operators to promote devices with mobile broadband built in.

It must be around five years ago that laptops started featuring wireless cards as standard. That seemed to be a signal that wi-fi was going to be the winner. Soon wi-fi hotspots were spreading beyond coffee-shops to cover airports, stations and other public places. Then whole cities began to unveil ambitious plans to provide coverage for everyone - often for nothing.

It suddenly seemed that all of those mobile operators who had spent fortunes buying 3G licences and rolling out networks had wasted their money. Not only did wi-fi provide a faster and better connection, but it offered users the ability to make Voip calls, which could really make a mess of the mobile industry's business model.

But somehow it hasn't quite worked out like that. The municipal wi-fi movement appears to have stalled, and getting online - in a city park, in a hotel or in an airport - can still be a frustrating affair. You type in your credit card details, then a long password - only to find that you're crawling, rather than speeding, over the web.

Meanwhile, the mobile firms have invested to speed up their 3G networks. Then last year, perhaps emboldened by wi-fi's slow progress, they started an aggressive marketing campaign for their mobile broadband products. At a surprising speed, the dongles have taken off - a recent survey from Point Topic claimed that they were already a more popular way of getting online than wi-fi.

Now it looks as though "embedded" 3G will soon become standard for laptops - and a range of other web-connected devices. So does that mean game, set and match to 3G? Not according to Steve Andrews, who, as BT's MD for Mobility and Convergence, is something of an evangelist for wi-fi. Mr Andrews told me that BT's wi-fi business was growing at 100% per annum, and that we were looking at a future where customers used both technologies in tandem.

"If you're in Heathrow Airport, where you can be guaranteed fast wi-fi, you'll use that - if you're out in the country you may use 3G." Vodafone, which is part of today's embedded 3G plan, was also cautious about writing off wi-fi, pointing out that its business users are already offered the chance to switch between the two systems.

The trouble is that, for most users, dealing with two rival connection methods is a lot of hassle and can prove expensive - especially if you go abroad. We need to know that we can move effortlessly between different wi-fi zones and providers and then onto the 3G network when appropriate. Steve Andrews of BT says providers around the world are working to make that happen: "Our mission is to make it seamless," he says.

At long last, the mobile internet is really beginning to take off, and most users don't really care whether it's 3G or HSPA, wi-fi or WiMax which takes them there. What they're looking for is an experience they don't even have to think about. So who's going to provide that?


  • Comment number 1.

    I think Steve Andrews has got it a little wrong.

    If I'm in Heathrow Airport where I can be guaranteed *reasonably priced* fast wi-fi, I will use it.

    I refuse to pay the rip-off price demanded by BT Openzone, particularly when airports like Budapest can offer completely free Wifi. Free as in it costs nothing, does not require you to register and you do not get bombarded with adverts.

    Public wi-fi in the UK is an absolute rip-off. Is it any wonder people are turning to 3G broadband?

  • Comment number 2.

    "The municipal wi-fi movement appears to have stalled, and getting online ...can still be a frustrating affair"

    You're telling me! Outside of really big cities the only WiFi tends to be 'illegal' unsecured private access (especially in suburban areas!)

    Whereas the 3G networks are covering a larger percentage of the country, meaning that I am able to get my coverage at a decent speed, for a price I'm happy to pay, practically wherever I happen to be living at the time.

  • Comment number 3.

    my iPhone already does all this, why would I want to lug around a laptop with an embedded 3g connection that I have to pay for?

  • Comment number 4.

    The technology to seamlessly switch between connectivity methods, using user-defined criteria including cost, has existed for at least 5 years. A company called Birdstep, based in Oslo, produces it - I have worked for them.

  • Comment number 5.

    I've had a 3g enabled Netbook for 2 years (Dialogue Flybook) but have still to find a reasonable tarrif to enable the function.

    Prices are falling now that there is more competition, but there are still punitive charges ( £1/Mb) if you go over your 1,3 or 5 Gb monthly allowance. This could mean a £1000 bill if you were to exceed your allowance by a gigabyte (a movie or two).

    Also the roaming charges are just ridiculous.

    I don't need the suppliers/manufacturers to collaborate on stickers, I want them to sort out the price and get the range of 3g to cover most of the UK.

  • Comment number 6.

    For sure. Nevermind WiFi (range too small, too expensive), nevermind WiMax (consider the roll-out costs) - the telcos shall inherit the connectivity earth. No infrastructure necessary - they already have a largely ubiquitous network that's been getting quicker and quicker, with only technology updates required. They hold all the cards. SIMs with everything.

  • Comment number 7.

    I used both technologies.

    I like wi-fi for its speed and bandwidth - it works fine - when a free or decently priced hotspot can be found...and therein lies the problem. I have found charges for an hour's use to be extortionate (more than my monthly 3G data subscription) and open wi-fi networks pose a security risk.

    3G is fine except:

    In rural areas it's very patchy
    It suffers from contention
    Data rates are nowhere near what is claimed
    There's almost always a significant limit on the data allowance.

    The strengths and weaknesses of the two technologies can complement one another with both existing quite happily.

  • Comment number 8.

    I've said this before, but while the 3g services on offer have ludicrous restrictions of 1, 3 and 5gb with the latter costing more per-month than my 20mbs (soon to be 50mbs) virgin connection, I can't see these services really being that big of a thing.

    3G isn't particularly fast and in much the same way as mobile phones is entirely dependant on mobile phone coverage which in the UK is still incredibly poor in about 60% of the country, and also heavily dependant on good weather. That is never likely to change and that puts as much a restriction on the 3g service as cooper lines puts on the standard broadband.

    So in effet, 3g compared to WiFi seems quite clearly to be the same as cooper line vs fibre optic.

    And I am sure I don't need to point out that the fibre optic craze, which started strong much like the WiFi craze, only to seemingly stall and not get taken up by other companies is also clearly the overal winner.

    Fact is, WiFi is a more stable medium and has that whole longevity thing that 3g surely can't compete with.

    In other words, wait until WiMax is officialy released and watch those dongles drop into the bin.

  • Comment number 9.

    Horses for courses?

    3G like GPRS and GSM enjoy fast and pretty seamless handover when a user moves between mobile cells. So it's a good technology when folk are on the move ... coverage permitting. But 3G coverage is slowly creeping out from the most urban areas and across the country. Good for the back of the car, on a bus, walking through a city centre.

    Wifi is great when you're in a fixed location, locked into a decent wifi signal that's backed by a fast bandwidth connection back into the internet. Good for airports and stations - if it's not flooded by too many users (Stansted, cough) - and for places where you sit in a seat or at a table/desk. But has anyone cracked wifi handover? Tilt your laptop and it picks up a different wifi router, freezes while it gets locked on, then decides the old signal was stronger after all and shifts back. Cue no work for 10 minutes!

    You either need to decide which type of usage you need, or get both.

  • Comment number 10.

    "If you're in Heathrow Airport, where you can be guaranteed fast wi-fi"

    Excuse me?

    "you'll use that - if you're out in the country you may use 3G."

    Excuse me?

    Since when has either been possible?

  • Comment number 11.

    As with post #3 I have mobile access via my HTC Touch Diamond. When I want a bigger screen and easier keyboard I connect it to my laptop via USB. The alliance doesn't offer anything new in fact I can connect my mobile to any windows based laptop rather than have it limit to one with the technology built in. Mobile broadband access has to be a better way to go rather than upgrading all the old BT network if only there was decent coverage throughout the UK.

  • Comment number 12.

    "If you're in Heathrow Airport, where you can be guaranteed fast wi-fi, you'll use that"

    Utter rubbish. Last week, Terminal 1, at a T-Mobile spot, I got...

    2kb/s. No joke.

  • Comment number 13.

    The problem is theres little or no incentive for the telcos to offer fast efficient cost-effective services, whether it be voice, sms or data. Their interest is solely in making as much money as possible whilst out-laying as little capital as possible.

    I say bring back public telecoms companies with efficient leadership.

    BUT what is really needed is scalable technology. There's too much cost installing the latest and greatest, look at 3G - what is REALLY needed is technology with the capacity, flexibility and forward thinking that will permit super-high bandwidth enabled mobile phones and devices, where-ever they are on the network, the mobile telcos should then market this to residential, as a competitive solution to cable - I can't understand the move to 3G when what SHOULD have been developed is a high-bandwidth low-latency version of WIFI (801.XX) that would be suitable for their base-stations and power conservative needs of a mobile device, so rather than having several technologies as with my iphone, 3G, GPRS, BlueTooth, Wifi ... everything should just connect with WIFI - standardization makes things easier!


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