Digital News Tech, , , , , , , — March 16, 2012 12:51 — 1 Comment

Wi-Fi is drawing power from mobile phone masts – and humans

sxsw, homeless, hotspot, internet, wi-fi, mobile devices;

Get yourself connected: Clarence advertises himself as a 'Wi-Fi hotspot' at SXSW

Most internet traffic on smartphones is carried by Wi-Fi, not mobile networks, and then there is the human connection


It’s time to Wi-Fi up. In major cities across the world hotspots are transmitting on every street with so-called ‘wireless fidelity’, a loose, urban network of signals, free or easy to hack and once you are connected they work at speeds well above the average mobile connection.

Even more controversially, at this year’s SXSW interactive festival (SXSWi), which wrapped on Tuesday, ‘homeless hotspots’ were used to provide conference goers with a quick web fix, all in the name of ‘charity’.

“It sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia. But it’s absolutely real, said Tim Carmody, writing in wired.com.

Set up by BBH Labs (part of marketing and advertising firm Bartle Bogle Hegarty) Homeless Hotspots was billed as “a charitable experiment” with Front Steps Shelter to equip people registered with the organisation with 4G MiFi devices wearing a T-shirt with: ‘I’M A 4G HOTSPOT’ and details how to login to serve as pay-per-use hotspots for attendees at SXSWi.

It sounds like a similar initiative to the Big Issue magazine sellers seen in most large cities and towns in the UK.

The homeless people stood beside conference goers to provide internet via a MiFi devices which connect to the internet via the 4G phone network and offer web access via a Wi-Fi network. Average rates were $2 per 15 minutes and profits go to charity.

“Homeless Hotspots is a charitable innovation initiative — it attempts to modernize the Street Newspaper model employed to support homeless populations,’ said BBH, via statement. “As digital media proliferates, these newspapers face increased pressure. Our hope is to create a modern version of this successful model, offering homeless individuals an opportunity to sell a digital service instead of a material commodity.”

But the campaign has been criticised for promoting greater social inequality, among other things. “You can guess what happens next, “writes Jon Mitchell on ReadWriteWeb. “You pay these homeless, human hotspots whatever you like, and then I guess you sit next to them and check your email and whatnot. The digital divide has never hit us over the head with a more blunt display of unselfconscious gall.”

Whatever the moral consequences of the SXSWi ‘experiment’, “even for phone users, Wi-Fi has become the most popular way of accessing the internet. So why are mobile phone companies planning to spend billions connecting us to the internet via 4G phone masts?” asks the Guardian’s Juliette Garside.

She says that in the UK in January 2012, only 19% of all internet traffic on smartphones was transmitted by a mobile network, according to researchers at Informa. They worked with Mobidia, whose app measures how much of your data allowance your phone has used up. The information was drawn from about a third of Mobidia’s 600,000 users.

The wider implications of how or where we get our Wi-Fi signal from (and who, if the SXSWi experiment is to be repeated in other cities) means that mobile phone operators could be about to waste a lot of money on what may one day become a niche technology. For example, Vodafone says creating its 4G network in Europe will cost €30bn ($39bn).

Globally, Mobidia found 70% of smartphone internet traffic is carried by Wi-Fi. In the US, the total is two thirds. The picture is similar in Hong Kong, Germany and Spain. Among the major markets, only Japan and Singapore show an even split between networks, Garside writes.

Informa says this is helped by the fact that they already have superfast mobile broadband, but more importantly because customers are sold generously sized or unlimited data plans at competitive prices.

Informa analyst Thomas Wehmeier, author of Understanding Today’s Smartphone User, published in February, said: “The expansion of Wi-Fi into hundreds of millions of private homes and offices around the world, the deployment of more than 1m public Wi-Fi hot spots by the end of 2011 and the growth of a vast and mature ecosystem built of thousands of devices has established Wi-Fi as the most heavily used wireless technology in the world in terms of volume of data transmitted … Wi-Fi is the primary form of connectivity for the overwhelming majority of users and it is apparent that Wi-Fi has become firmly entrenched in day-to-day usage.”

Wi-Fi has evolved as a grassroots technology, promoted and funded by a ragged coalition of trade bodies, cafe owners, universities, town councils, entrepreneurs and the occasional telecoms company, Garside writes. Despite this, it is gaining ground against lavishly marketed mobile networks. Wi-Fi is triumphing against the odds, suggesting it is the natural choice for carrying most internet traffic, even on mobile devices.

When the London Underground finally provides a phone signal for passengers it will be Wi-Fi  — the service is due roll out in time for the 2012 Olympic games in little over three months.

Of course we still need 4G networks, says Garside. A signal that works without having to fiddle about with passwords is always going to be worth paying more money for. For many rural householders, whose homes are difficult to reach with fibre cables, the technology offers the best chance of a fast internet signal.

But, in all major cities it is Wi-Fi that is keeping citizens connected and is slowly draining the power of the mobile phone mast. And if Austin, Texas, is anything to go by humans are now also transporting that power.

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About the author

Tony Myers has written 866 articles for Smart Movie Making

Fooling around with the iPhone since 2010. Taking it to the next web by writing about new media, new technology, new wave cinema and the digital revolution.

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