Wi-Fi researchAs someone who historically has been skeptical about suggestions that widespread Wi-Fi networks would be a viable alternative to mobile networks, recent smart phone and tablet trends are a cause to reexamine those assumptions.

The way people now use mobile and untethered devices means the questions have to be asked in a different way than in the past. “For which applications can a Wi-Fi network be a viable substitute for a mobile network?” is the new question.

The new question is more complicated, as the original value proposition for mobile phones was “calling on the go.” When there was no other convenient way to use voice while outside the home or office, mobile networks clearly were the only option.

These days, perhaps only 10 percent to 20 percent of total mobile device usage, for all apps and purposes, actually happens when people are “on the go.” all the rest of the usage is in untethered mode at locations where there is Wi-Fi access.

That hints at a potential change, at least for some users, devices and applications. One way of looking at matters is that the actual value of the mobile network is provided about 10 percent to 20 percent of the time, while at all other times, the Wi-Fi (fixed network) actually provides “more value.”

Volume of usage does not directly equate to value, of course. Even if the mobile network is really useful only that 10 percent to 20 percent of the time when people are on the go, the value proposition for mobile remains intact.

Eventually there could be widespread unhappiness with the retail price of acquiring that value, but for the moment the value proposition and the retail price are fairly well aligned. Given the structure of retail tariffs these days, “value” is paid for as “I have the ability to use the network,” more than as a direct “per instance” charging method.

In other words, the retail charge for mobile network access is analogous to a bucket of usage, sold at a fixed fee, whether a person consumes all that usage, or not.

Arguably, the ability to make or receive a call, on the go, still is valued highly enough to justify buying a capability that does not get used as much as it once was.  And recent usage trends show a declining amount of voice traffic.

That doesn’t mean all users are willing to pay as much for that capability as they once did. The growing popularity of prepaid plans suggests the value is there, but the expectation of retail price has gotten lower.

Content consumption arguably is a different matter. It appears that mobile device content consumption already typically relies on Wi-Fi access, rather than the mobile network. That is even more true for tablet devices.

In other words, unlike the scenario for voice, where the ability to use the mobile network historically has had high value, the ability to use the mobile Internet network has had medium value, for most users.

Given the prevailing state of retail tariffs for mobile data, one might argue that the new pattern for content access is primarily untethered, not mobile.

What is hard to assess is the actual current end user value placed on mobile Internet access. Some amount of usage clearly has high value. People like to be able to use email, check Facebook and get directions on the go. It is not so clear they equally value the ability to watch videos or read books on the go.

They like to do those things, but mostly on Wi-Fi networks when they are not moving around outside the home or office, it appears.

Globally, Cisco says, only about a third of mobile Internet access is shifted to the Wi-Fi networks. But that will grow to about 46 percent in 2017.

And it appears that most of that shift will be of Internet sites and apps, not voice. So, to return to the original question, can Wi-Fi networks displace the mobile network? Perhaps the way to get at the answer is to ask how much demand there might be for any “smart phone” that could only use Wi-Fi?

The intuitive answer is that few might actually consider that reasonable, though most people would be quite happy with a tablet that could only use Wi-Fi access. That suggests Wi-Fi still is not at the point where it actually can displace the mobile network. It is a great complement, especially for content consumption.

But until lots of people routinely want to buy smart phones that only can use Wi-Fi access, it is safe to conclude that Wi-Fi really cannot replace the mobile network for voice and messaging. For users who value navigation and real time social network access, it also is unlikely that Wi-Fi-only will be a satisfying access choice.

And that might be the key. Mobile networks still are essential for any real-time apps that might have to be used while on the go, or “anytime.” Wi-Fi works as a supplement, where possible, or as a first choice for “PC” style apps that are useful even when used in non-real time modes.