Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Failed Promise of WiFi

When WiFi first came out, wild promises of free Internet access abounded.  Today, even finding a working public WiFi network is problematic.

When Nuclear Power first came on the scene, it was thought that it would be so cheap as to not be metered.  Why bother measuring consumption when nuclear power essentially cost nothing?  Of course, that turned out not to be the case, and utility rates have continued to rise over the years.

WiFi first operated under the same premise.  It was said that municipalities would wire their cities for free WiFi for all citizens - with free internet access for everyone.   That didn't happen.   Cafes and restaurants and other businesses would offer free WiFi it was said.  That happened, but it is starting to disappear.


With any commodity (and Internet bandwidth is a commodity) when the price drops down to a certain point (or is free) people will drive up consumption to the point where scarcity takes over again.   It is the balance of the free market, and we've seen this pattern in the past.   

In the 1950's electricity was cheap, and people did stupid things like build uninsulated glass-walled houses (with single-pane thickness glass) and heated them with resistive baseboard electric heat. It worked swell, for a few years, until utility rates shot up, and suddenly these energy hogs became nightmares for their owners.  Heating with resistive heat is no longer even considered, much less applied in the real world today, other than as "emergency backup" heat for a heat pump.

Water used to be very cheap in this country, and in many places it still is.   Cheap water meant you could water acres and acres of arid land and turn a desert into an oasis.   But then the water ran out - or more precisely, it became scarce as more and more people consumed more and more of it.  Today, people in Atlanta get $1000-a-month water bills if they water their lawns in the summer.

WiFi faced the same problems.  When WiFi first rolled out, most people went online to get their e-mail, often in text format (ASCII) and maybe visit a primitive website or two.  Animations, videos, music, and the like were not very common, if they indeed existed at all.  But since WiFi was "free" people quickly learned they could use this bandwidth to video conference (Skype), download movies, or to make phone calls.   Today, smart phones will search for and log into WiFi routers, so that the user can avoid costly cell service data limits.

As a result, finding reliable free WiFi is getting more and more difficult. If you go to a cafe and someone hogs all the bandwidth with a Skype call or by downloading a movie on their smart phone, you won't be able to get on.

And as more and more people use smart phones to access the internet (using cell data plans, not WiFi bandwidth) the need for free WiFi diminishes.  Or more precisely, the attraction of having "free WiFi" at your internet cafe is not what it used to be.  Someone with a smart phone and an unlimited data plan really doesn't care whether you have free WiFi or not.

As a result, you see less and less free WiFi sites these days.  And those that are still around are often in poor repair or not working well.   And logically, this is a predictable event.  For a business, if there is no real advantage to offering free WiFi, then there is no real reason to offer it. So more and more businesses are letting free WiFi wither on the vine.

We have been traveling across the country, and we are finding that free WiFi sites are harder and harder to come by.  We have a WiFi hotspot (on a pay-as-you-go plan) but cell service is not always available in some remote areas.

We've found some "free" WiFi hotspots, but found them in poor repair.   Busy clerks and salespeople don't have the time or expertise to fiddle with balky routers.  Maybe one or two of them know how to reboot a router and modem, but the rest, well, just say, "It was working yesterday!"

Some "free" WiFi providers have tried to limit bandwidth abuse by putting limiting devices on their WiFi routers.  However, these often end up cutting off all but the most basic communications - HTML loading of e-mails and the like.

Even "paid" WiFi services are withering on the vine.  Why bother paying for WiFi service, if you have a smart phone that is also a mobile hotspot?

Why indeed.

Today, when I try to log onto a WiFi router, the list of routers mostly includes the smart phone hotspots of my neighbors, usually with corresponding names, such as "Suzy's iPhone" (my all-time favorite is "FBI Surveillance Van" which I think I will use to rename my Hotspot).

All of these folks - and there are dozens of them often within wireless range - don't need or want the "free" WiFi provided by the campground host, or cafe owner, or whatever.  Moreover, this plethora of hotspots often means it is that much harder to log into the free WiFi provided by the business owner.

Once in a while, these folks leave their hotspots unencrypted and you can piggyback off their connection.  However, that probably is illegal and unethical.  A lot of folks who have smart phones are not even aware their phone is also a hotspot and moreover, don't realize they are paying $20 to $30 extra a month for this service!

Some business owners have attempted to offer free Wifi, or extend the range of their free WiFi by using secondary routers or repeaters (extenders) piggybacking off their primary (business) internet connection.   Often these simply don't work, or the amount of data they end up funneling through the modem ends up overloading the system.  Just because you can hang three repeaters off your modem, doesn't mean it will support the bandwidth.  Do us all a favor and just say "No" to extenders and repeaters and whatnot - unless they really work.

And just say "We don't have WiFi" if you are not going to offer a robust connection. I have wasted countless hours in Internet Cafes or campgrounds, and the like, trying to make a balky connection work reliably.  I end up just getting frustrated - and wanting an hour of my life back.  If you can't get it to work, don't entice people to enter your place of business and then say, "Gee, it was working yesterday!" and "Frank, the guy who set it up, is on vacation this week!"   Just unplug it all and drop the pretense that you even have WiFi.  Because you don't, period.

I suspect that WiFi - as we knew it and sort of know it today - will be gone in the next 5-10 years.   In its place will be dedicated "hot spots" owned by individuals, who will piggyback their personal electronics off their smart phones, pad devices, or the like.   The concept of a business owner providing free Internet connections will start to fade, as fewer and fewer people actually need such a service.   Municipalities and schools will follow suit.  Why spend the money wiring huge areas for free WiFi service, when most of your customer base has their own smart device with a cell connection?   By providing free WiFi, you are just encouraging them to use your network to make phone calls, send text messages, or try to hook up on Grinder or whatever.

So, the promise of free Internet turned out to be a pipe dream.  In its place will be millions of private WiFi hotspots, each owned and maintained by an individual and most importantly, paid for by the individual.   Why give away bandwidth for free, when people are willing to pay - and pay a lot - for it?

It is, perhaps, yet another reason to despise smart phones - they took what was free and cheap, and made it into a trendy and expensive accessory.  The prevalence of smart phones has lead to a direct decrease in the availability of free WiFi.  They will drive free WiFi to extinction in a few years, I predict.

And you wonder, sometimes, if this wasn't all by plan. Maybe 5-10 years ago, in some boardroom somewhere (perhaps at Apple), a group of executives meet around a table and say, "hmmmm, free WiFi, eh?  Well, we'll have to put a stop to that!"

UPDATE 2023:  Well, as I predicted, it pretty much has happened.  We find fewer and fewer campgrounds or cafes offering "Free WiFi" and quite frankly, who needs it?  We have a 100GB per month plan on our poverty WiFi Hotspot and it will stream movies, even at 3G.  WiFi is no longer really an "internet access" service, but more like Bluetooth - just a means of connecting your device to another device - in this case, phone-to-router, computer-to-router, or television-to-router.  All those "Cat 5" Internet cables are in the dustbin.  Who wants wires?

We do find some campgrounds still offering "free WiFi" only because they are very rural and in a cell phone dead zone.   So WiFi is the only way to log on.  However, as the weekend progresses and more and more people sign on, well, you get kicked off.  Sadly, the same thing happens with our hot spot - on a busy weekend, when everyone gets on their cell phone, the hot spot slows down further and further.  You may have four bars of service at 6:00 AM, but by noon, it is down to one.

Supply and demand!  The idea of "free" Internet bandwidth was a stupid one.