Wi-Fi leaves 3G, GPRS in the dust
Asia Computer Weekly - March 10 - 16, 2003
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Asia increases hotspots for roaming

BY TAO AI LEI

SINGAPORE: WI-FI (wireless fidelity) or wireless LANs (WLANs) may be threatening the viability of 3G and GPRS systems, even before they reach mass deployment.

The Asia-Pacific has been a hive of such Wi-Fi or hotspot activity.

Most recent is Singapore's StarHub's tie-up with wireless operators 5G and Bluengine to provide seamless hotspot roaming in Singapore, upping the ante in the Wi-Fi hotspot war against incumbent SingTel.

Malaysia has also been actively promoting Wi-Fi hotspots, with plans by telcos and non-telcos to extend the hotspots beyond the key urban areas like coffee outlets and shopping complexes.

WLANs were really not intended to be mobile broadband solutions, operating in the unlicensed 2.4GHz band, said Gary Hong, research manager, Communications Research, IDC Asia/Pacific.

Originally designed to provide PCs with fast Internet access wirelessly, it is an open specification by IEEE.

Wi-Fi also offers considerably faster speeds than 3G today. It offers theoretical speeds of 11Mbps and can scale up to 54Mbps. This is compared to the 40Kbps offered by GPRS, and the theoretical 2Mbps for 3G.

3G operators such as Sprint have achieved only 384Kbps so far, said Subha Rama, industry analyst for Technology Practice, Frost & Sullivan.

Its advantages of speed and affordability has seen Wi-Fi hotspots sprout up especially in countries with high ADSL or broadband penetration, like Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Taiwan.

In contrast, the GPRS/3G standards are developed by several vendors who spend billions on R&D, and sell expensive equipment to the telcos for these mobile wireless networks to fulfill the promise of speedy data or wireless Internet access.

Carriers like Korea Telecom, Hanaro, Chunghwa Telecom, NTT, China Mobile, Telstra, SingTel, and StarHub today offer hotspot services.

Not too long ago, some of these carriers were the very ones which were ready to spend vast amounts to acquire 2.5G and 3G licences, noted Hong.

The relatively cheap set-up costs of Wi-Fis have also seen non-carriers get in on the act, such as Bluengine and SkyNet Global in Singapore and Australia.

So the rub for telcos which have invested heftily into mobile networks and 3G licences, is how to not to undermine their mobile business with Wi-Fi networks.

SingTel got around this by charging the same fee per minute for both Wi-Fi and GPRS access, even though the set up costs for Wi-Fi was likely far less than for GPRS, said Eg Kah Yee, president & CEO of Palette Multimedia, provider of Yellowspots hotspots.

Another trend is the emergence of property owners setting up building hotspots, said Eg. Hotel chains such as the Copthorne and Shang groups have opted to set up and run hotspots for their hotels, providing it as a value-added service for their guests.

However, Wi-Fi has shortcomings that prevent it from completely overshadowing GPRS/3G. They include: security; regulatory bottlenecks; client size; the possibility of network interference for an unlicensed spectrum; device issues, as PDAs currently cannot support data intensive applications as their batteries have a shorter life-space; and billing and roaming issues.

Ubiquity is another problem, as Wi-Fi access tends to be restricted to heavily populated cities that have a high number of mobile corporate users.

The eventual scenario may be that both Wi-Fi and 3G will co-exist, said Hong.

Vendors are already working towards easing the technology obstacles.

Avaya, Proxim and Motorola have in January unveiled plans to combine Wi-Fi, cellular, and IP telephony networks, with trials due in 2H'03.

This will allow users to shift voice calls and data transmissions from one network to another.

"VoIP is expected to emerge as a killer app for Wi-Fi in the near term," said Rama.

Certainly, for Taiwanese telco Chunghwa Telecom, Wi-Fi is viewed as complementary to GPRS/3G. "WLAN is only suitable for specific areas with a lower tariff, and GPRS/3G can provide seamless wireless access," said Shih Mu-Piao, chief engineer, Mobile Business Group, Chunghwa Telecom.

The telco intends to evaluate the integration of WLAN and GPRS so that users have a choice in terms of wireless Internet access.

The SIM card will be used as the authentication and billing method for Wi-Fi. For them, Wi­Fi will never replace GPRS/3G, and they have no plans to offer voice services over Wi-Fi. 

-Additional reporting by Teresa Leung