Wi-Fi Could Serve To Shore Up Wireless Networks Sagging from Smartphone Use

The data-devouring iPhone horde saturated AT&T's wireless networks, exposing lingering problems with the network's design and deployment. As other carriers release their own new devices, can we expect to see the same? Will the Droid help bring Verizon to its knees? Will the MyTouch 3G rain sluggishness down on T-Mobile? Wi-Fi could be smartphone users' saving grace, but a hotspot network is rife with security concerns.

Frost &Sullivan analysts estimate that 250 million smartphones will ship globally in 2010, an indication that a lot more devices will be banging away at a lot more networks in the near future. In the meantime, applications will continue to get richer with increasing reliance on bandwidth-intensive audio- or video-based media, and these rich apps will become available to an ever-increasing pool of devices and mobile operating systems. More devices and richer applications equal a dramatic increase in mobile network data usage.

On the flip side, Airvana (a femtocell manufacturer that has been acquired by 72 Mobile Holdings) announced a few months ago that its research indicated that smartphone usage has a more dramatic impact on signaling traffic. Airvana found that smartphones have a "load multiplier effect" on wireless networks, producing up to eight times the network signaling load of a USB data modem in a laptop (while typically consuming only 4 percent of the actual data that this laptop would).

This disparity is postulated to be due to a couple of factors: that smartphones are always on and polling the network (checking e-mail and IM accounts or consuming other data on an ongoing basis) and that these devices frequently move between cells.

AT&T has been a smartphone guinea pig in the United States--the first to succumb to the crushing deluge of new users and devices eating more data and making more noise. The data-devouring iPhone horde (myself included) saturated the carrier's wireless networks, exposing lingering problems with the network's design and deployment, particularly in high-value markets such as New York and San Francisco.

The question is whether we can expect to see similar effects surface in other networks, as those carriers release their own new devices that capture the tech-buying public's fascination, driving a significant influx of users and usage. Will the Droid help bring Verizon to its knees? Will the MyTouch 3G rain sluggishness down on T-Mobile?

The mobile operators know they will need to provision for an influx of new traffic that will come as they sell more smartphones, and this need for expansion may come before LTE will be ready for prime time in the States.

To offload this data surge, Wi-Fi makes a lot of sense as an alternative. Most devices now support the technology, and coverage is fairly pervasive in homes and businesses. Out on the streets, the picture isn't as rosy, as municipal Wi-Fi never took off. But AT&T has shown the value provided by a patchy hotspot network, as it has shunted a great deal of traffic off to its collection of networks in Starbucks, McDonalds and elsewhere across the country.

So, it comes as no surprise that Verizon has joined the ranks of carriers offering customers free access to a hotspot network (even if that access doesn't yet extend to smartphones) to deal with its own expected influx of data usage.

None of these collections of hotspots are pervasive enough to address wide coverage problems like AT&T has in the aforementioned cities. But could we soon see a situation where a carrier deploys its own targeted muni-lite Wi-Fi network (covering only isolated neighborhoods rather than a whole city) to shore up troublesome locales?

If carriers are going to more widely adopt Wi-Fi as an access technology, they need to be more serious about network security. Hotspots are typically open and unencrypted, and quietly moving potentially sensitive data from protected 3G networks using licensed bands to unencrypted Wi-Fi using unlicensed airspace could expose a surprising amount of information. I'd therefore like to see carriers use their prodigious AAA infrastructures to enable better Wi-Fi security on these islands of connectivity. At the very least, they could generate unique WPA-PSK keys that provide both network encryption and user authentication.

My Ruckus Wireless Zone Director can deliver such a profile to an iPhone? Why couldn't a carrier?

Senior Analyst Andrew Garcia can be reached at agarcia@eweek.com.