It's no secret that mobile carriers are starting to worry about having enough wireless spectrum to support our mobile devices. AT&T did away with unlimited data plans for smartphones and tablets earlier this year and Verizon recently followed suit introducing a somewhat confusing array of tiered plans that vary depending on the type of phone or device you use. T-Mobile is taking a different tactic to conserve bandwidth on its network by announcing plans to throttle back the connection speeds of heavy data users (personally, I'd rather pay for more data than have my ability to use the service slowed down).
Unlike the problems that AT&T faced after iPhone 3G launched, simply expanding or upgrading a network ultimately won't be a solid fix. That's because with an ever-growing number of devices, it's not just about congestion in a given area (which can be fixed with by simply adding more towers). The problem is that the actual spectrum of frequencies used by 3G (and now 4G) devices is limited and each company only owns certain pieces of the pie – hence why wireless spectrum auctions by the FCC or existing spectrum owners command high prices from carriers.
Does this spell disaster? Maybe not since most wireless devices support Wi-Fi as well. Wi-Fi may not be the new technology kid on the block anymore, but it still advantages for both carriers and users.
In many parts of the country, Wi-Fi is fast than 3G service on any carrier – particularly when you away from major population centers. 4G, while beginning to be rolled out by carriers is available only select pockets of the country. This means that Wi-Fi can be one of the faster connectivity options. It will also tend to drain a device's battery a bit more slowly (particularly if you opt to turn 3G/4G data off on the device while using Wi-Fi).
For carriers, Wi-Fi offers the ability to support large numbers of subscribers using dedicated connections to their primary data trunks. Yes, these are the same connections that towers use, but they can be more concentrated and focused on given locations, don't need to content with voice and text/MMS messaging, can be expanded and reconfigured more quickly an inexpensively, and use a completely different portion of wireless spectrum that is shared by all Wi-Fi devices rather than slim portions dedicated to them.
That's why AT&T began offering free access to its Wi-Fi hotspots to subscribers and why carriers are partnering with companies to offer free W-Fi in places like Starbucks, Panera, and McDonalds. It's a win all around - users get faster connections for free, carriers have less demand on their networks, and businesses attract customers who stay longer (and spend more money).
Larger scale projects like the wireless network blanketing Times Square and the surrounding areas of mid-town Manhattan and city-wide municipal networks that users can tap into for free or at low-costs also offer a reprieve for carriers and the potential for better and more ubiquitous access to users. Even your home wireless network helps keep 3G/4G data use down (one reason why femtocells that offload voice and data over a home or office network are becoming more common offerings – they're also great in areas of weaker overall coverage).
What does this mean to the average Android, iPhone, or iPad user (or anyone with a notebook of any stripe)? For now, it means that as tiered data plans become more common, keeping an eye out for available Wi-Fi networks will keep your bill down and will deliver better performance (particularly if you a data heavyweight on T-Mobile). It also means that we'll probably start seeing more free Wi-Fi from carriers (or companies partnering with them) in the future.