From a keynote address by Kevin Fitchard:

Last month Gigaom ran a big feature series called ‘Reinventing the internet’, exploring how broadband technology, applications policy, and security were evolving – and should evolve – to connect the world in the 21st century.

I handled the wireless component of that series, and I slightly surprised myself by writing as much about unlicensed technologies like Wi-Fi as I wrote about traditional cellular networks.

Here were my conclusions: The mobile internet of the future isn’t going to be supplied by a single carrier, using a single wireless technology, on a single service plan. If we truly want to use mobile broadband the way we use fixed broadband, then our wireless signals will come from multiple sources, and one of those key sources will be Wi-Fi.

My colleague Stacey Higginbotham took that idea one step further when she wrote this headline last August “Who’s your new mobile carrier? How about Wi-Fi?”

Her argument was that Wi-Fi has become so key to connecting our mobile devices, that selecting the Wi-Fi networks available to you is far more important than what mobile carrier you choose. As an example, Republic Wireless, a mobile virtual network operator with a Wi-Fi First focus, was seeing 90 percent of its mobile traffic traverse Wi-Fi networks.

Of course, Republic is a small MVNO with a customer base committed to this kind of data offload model. If you talk to a more a traditional carrier, they’ll tell you this kind of model will never work for most people. Mobile networks use dedicated spectrum. Mobile networks are planned and managed.

Relying on Wi-Fi as your primary mobile internet connection would be inviting chaos. And they’re right. Wi-Fi is chaotic. As anyone who has ever been to big industry conference, where every exhibitor sets up their own network, knows this. The competition for the unlicensed bands’ limited capacity is fierce. Everyone has experienced connecting to a dead or overloaded hotspot and having to force your phone off the network. But anyone who has ever tried to connect to a 4G network during rush hour in downtown Chicago has experienced similar problems.

Yes, Wi-Fi can be chaos, but I would argue that it’s a beautiful chaos. Many of the most popular mobile applications we have today got their start and maintained their popularity because of Wi-Fi. If you ever streamed an HD movie to your tablet on Netflix, then you probably did it over Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi hasn’t just been a source of tremendous capacity but also an incredible driver on innovation. Unlike cellular spectrum which is licensed and tightly controlled by the operators, the openness of the unlicensed bands allows anyone with a new idea to go for broke.

At Gigaom we write a lot about startups, and increasingly the networking startups I talk to are making Wi-Fi the centerpiece of their businesses. Open Garden is using Wi-Fi Direct and Bluetooth to build ad hoc messaging networks that bypass the internet entirely. M87 is trying to help carriers build faster and more resilient cellular networks by letting phones crowdsource their connections via Wi-Fi.

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