It struck me recently that if iOS 4.3 really includes a personal hotspot option (please, oh, please Telus turn this on when released), that maybe we’ll start to see a decline in public wifi at cafes, airports, etc. Of course, I’m not talking about decline in WiFi as a protocol, but rather why would places offer wifi if no one uses it? It wasn’t that long ago that geeks would favor places that had free wifi, of course this was when being able to tether your smartphone to use the cell data network wasn’t an option for most people. But now? Now most of us smartphone owners can tether our phones and be online without the need for what a cafe offers. Myself I’ve had a tether-able phone for probably 5 years now (and an EVDO data stick for 3), so I’ve always had the option to eschew public wifi if I didn’t want to use it (Funny thing is; I didn’t very often). Yeah, I used public wifi, just like everyone else, because it was easy and convenient. It’s a lot faster to just connect to the cafe network than get out my data stick, connect, etc. Not to mention I’m paying for the data access on the stick and if I go over, I pay more (Funny thing though—I’ve never gone over). Regardless, why use public wifi or even the infamously bad hotel wifi (which I think borders on a scam at some establishments), if you can tap into your data plan through a portable hotspot on your phone…why pay for wifi or risk using insecure wifi when you’re out and about? Or like Tim Bray put in this tweet recently:
Sitting in my hotel room in the Valley, getting 4.25M down 1.71M up via my Nexus-S hotspot, paying hotel nothing.
You can get better (and more reliable) download speeds through newer devices? And since Firesheep made headlines a few months ago, I’ve tried to avoid using open, public WiFi if I can help it. The risks involved just make me twitch. The only hitch in my “no-open-public-wifi” rule is that my iPad is WiFi only, so I sometimes feel the need to connect to public WiFi with it, but an iOS-based (as in non-jailbroken) wifi hotspot option would pretty much fix that for me.
Sure, this is great for me. I have lots of tools and tricks at my disposal to tether, share, and extend my Internet access bubble, but what about all the people without smartphones? I know there are lots of people who don’t have data sticks or tether-able (or hotspot-able) phones. I also know that the cost of using your phone’s data plan for WiFi access away from home, could get steep. Right now, the number of people who can (as in technologically able to, not know how to) avoid using public WiFi is smaller than those who can’t, but I think those scales are tipping fast. I really believe that it will soon start to be more bother than it’s worth for small coffee places to offer Internet access to patrons. I think carriers are getting wise to people wanting not only Internet whenever and wherever they are, but also secure and fast Internet as well. When you connect to the cell data network, you can get that speed and security without too much trouble.
As for locations like schools and universities, I think they will still offer WiFi to help students and teachers connect (since it’s a lot easier to collaborate using sharing tools if you’re on the same network). Conferences are going to be an interesting question. In a small cafe if you have 10 people with wifi spots in the area, the congestion isn’t going to be too, too bad, however bring that up a couple orders of magnitude and you’re going to start running into problems.
Maybe we don’t have solutions to issues like network congestion or data plan costs, but the era of personal Internet bubbles is certainly here. Just like the cell phone has essentially killed the public pay phone, being able to use your phone to get online with your tablet or laptop, is going to start killing public WiFi.
I don’t think we’ll miss it.