Picture it now. Hot espresso; light jazz; sugar-dusted croissants (I hope you said “cwasont” in your head); the keyboard clicks of professionals and artists. But no Wi-Fi.
Wait, what? No Wi-Fi in coffee shops?
First, look at the reasons free public Wi-Fi came to exist in the first place:
Those motivators are shifting, and future solutions will be different than past solutions.
5G is fast enough
5G has all the technical capabilities to solve the speed and capacity problems of small venues, even as apps and Internet behavior are more media-rich and demanding. Regulators are also doling out loads of spectrum for operators’ 5G to ride on. Thus, the public cellular network of the future solves for the minimum requirements of coffee shop Wi-Fi—bandwidth for video streaming, download/upload file work, reliable real-time collaboration, browsing, and email.
Demand for security
Users are also increasingly aware of the security risks inherent in Internet use. Major news headlines highlight ransomware, abuse of data by big tech, data leaks, privacy failings, and (because of crypto) blockchain. As tech permeates daily life, users become warier, and savvier, when it comes to security.
On that topic, public Wi-Fi suffers from two significant problems. Open Wi-Fi (and coffee shop password-protected networks, too) are dead easy to use but offer no security whatsoever. So, they’re subject to eavesdropping and man-in-the-middle attacks. Conversely, the SIM paradigm in cellular is both secure and super easy. If you dig deep enough, cellular has its own security attack footprint and privacy risks, but in terms of over-the-air data privacy and vulnerability against local bad actors, cellular absolutely wins.
Data plans are unlimited-ish
Security and speed are important, but neither of them matters if users must ration cellular data. This is the one area where the industry needs more change if cellular wants to compete with Wi-Fi in small venues. But it will keep changing. Over time, we’ll all be so comfortable with unlimited cellular data that we won’t feel vulnerable without Wi-Fi. We won’t seek out free Wi-Fi in small venues or look for Wi-Fi passwords at the counter anymore. If we have non-Wi-Fi devices like laptops or tablets, we will just tether/hotspot them with our phone and go.
But, it won’t be private 5G
Private 5G is very interesting, but not for coffee shops. Nonetheless, I watched a video recently in which a technologist argues that coffee shops and small businesses will replace Wi-Fi routers with 5G hardware. I see the mobile operator sales delusion creeping in. The basic argument is that cellular will overtake Wi-Fi in coffee shops because operators will install a private cellular core (a compact server) and a cellular radio on-site. This argument belongs in a dumpster.
Small venues like coffee shops don’t want different equipment on-site—they want zero equipment on-site. If they must have equipment for Internet service, it doesn’t get any cheaper, easier, or more guest-friendly than a Wi-Fi router and inexpensive broadband.
If cellular wins, it will be because of less expensive unlimited plans and ubiquitous public/macro networks. Cellular will not out-compete Wi-Fi with a more expensive, more complicated, and less compatible private cellular box on site that still requires a broadband subscription for backhaul. Wi-Fi will remain cheaper and easier to deploy if coffee shops want to keep a private network.
However, the battle still rages on. Wi-Fi won’t give up so easily. Here are some arguments on its behalf, and counter-arguments for cellular.
Wi-Fi has secure options too
Traditionally, the guest access available at coffee shops uses open Wi-Fi access with effectively no security whatsoever. One might argue that secure Wi-Fi options like Passpoint (Hotspot 2.0) and its offshoots or Wi-Fi Enhanced Open™ are suitable replacements to open (no security) Wi-Fi. But, Wi-Fi is replete with technically sound standards and mechanisms that never see broad adoption—especially among the SOHO or “prosumer” devices that often feed small businesses.
However, Passpoint has always been too complicated for venue operators to implement, and the end-to-end ecosystem was slow to mature. OpenRoaming has more potential (especially in medium and large venues) as a roaming framework in a turnkey package, and it will deliver on the promise of an automatic and secure user experience. But, Enhanced Open only meets half of the requirements for well-rounded Wi-Fi security. It provides encryption and data privacy, but there is no authentication whatsoever, which is ok in a coffee shop.
However, the real key for all of these security paradigms is client device adoption. If you want to support all guest devices in a coffee shop, you may need a simpler and less secure access option for devices that don’t support the security protocols. And finally, the interoperability framework for Wi-Fi security is insufficient; rollout of new protocols is always delayed by client software problems, driver bugs, proprietary protocol incompatibility, and more.
Compare this once more to cellular. Insert SIM and go.
Laptops and tablets don’t have cellular
Wi-Fi advocates will also rightly argue that most laptops and tablets do not have cellular. I will not attempt to counter that argument. It’s true. In fact, Gartner has damning forecasts for laptop cellular. They split the market size roughly 60/40 between premium ultra-mobiles and traditional notebooks. By 2024, less than 5% of premium laptops are expected to have a cellular chip. And none of the standard laptops will. In other words, less than 3% of new laptops will have cellular.
Good data point. But, I have two rebuttals. First, fewer people are using laptops and tablets because everything is now a mobile app. Internet service consumption will continue to shift in this direction. It will continue to become more automated, app-centric, and voice-driven (less keyboard typing). But honestly, this is a slow shift, so laptops will remain as core productivity tools for a long time. So what will we do with the remaining 98% of Wi-Fi-only laptops?
They will use the mobile phone’s hotspot because it’s easy, private, secure, and in the future (I expect), unlimited.
Unlimited plans are throttled, and so are hotspots and tethering
Ah, so you anticipated my previous point and countered with a good one. Even though data consumption will grow, I think true unlimited plans without throttling will increase over the next five years. There are already hints of this as US mobile operators introduce premium non-throttled plans. At the same time, I could see the throttled speed (currently < 1Mbps) increasing over time as network capacity improves with 5G rollouts. Operators with “dumb pipes” still need new ways to differentiate; unlimited data, faster-throttled speeds, and more headroom before hotspot throttling are clear values for customers.
Race to the bottom…ready, set, go.
But coffee shops still need Wi-Fi for backend use cases
Yes, they do have backend services like billing and point of sale. But, hotspots also solve some of these problems for laptops and other operational business services. Wirelessly connected point of sale (POS) terminals (especially handhelds) often use cellular already, so the only thing left is converting tablet POS to cellular. This might be a best practice due to reliability (but let’s be honest, the reliability fault isn’t Wi-Fi, it’s small business broadband).
Printing in this context is also dead or dying because almost everything has been digitized; what’s left of paper will digitize via phone camera/scan apps. Then the last holdout is maybe a few connected sensors, thermostats, refrigerators, or other BLE/Wi-Fi things that may exist in a fraction of small businesses. Those things are best suited to Wi-Fi because cellular chip costs are too high, and we don’t want a subscription for every device. Maybe there’s room for cellular IoT hubs to solve this problem. Or perhaps Wi-Fi is just too cheap and simple to easily displace.
5 years. In 5 years, the landscape of public Wi-Fi in small venues will shift. I’m not saying there will be a full-scale replacement of Wi-Fi by cellular for small venues in that time. But by then, we’ll see the first stages underway, and the longer-term implications will be more apparent. Nonetheless, it will take time for users to adopt the view that cellular is genuinely an unlimited pipe. This is partly because mobile plans undergo constant rejiggering, so we may need a few years of truly unlimited data before the public mindset shifts en masse. As Sue Marek points out, mobile operators may not be so eager to continue to provide unlimited data with 5G data usage kicks in.
Very small venues like coffee shops are extremely unique. My video answer from above is specific to that sub-segment of public Wi-Fi. For other segments with guest access, I think the cellular versus Wi-Fi debate is much further in the future. In the meantime, co-existence is the name of the game.
I could see a portion of budget-focused hoteliers shifting to a cellular-first mentality in no-frills guest rooms. Every hospitality decision seems to boil down to cost per room, so if user perception shifts towards cellular, hotel owner groups will be the first to abandon in-room Wi-Fi as unnecessary cargo. But, especially for the mid-tier and premium hotel brands, the already-expected Wi-Fi experience is tied directly to guest satisfaction. So doubtful you will see any change in the next five years.
Venues and other high-density deployments need Wi-Fi for capacity. Millimeter-wave (mmWave) spectrum might help 5G providers solve this in the long run, but there’s still a lot of work to do both in regulatory availability as well as equipment costs. I talk about chip cost somewhat regularly because it matters a lot. Wi-Fi chips are cheap. 5G chips are expensive. mmWave 5G chips are ridiculously expensive. But, spectrum availability drives capacity. And cost-to-capacity ratios drive technology decisions. So Wi-Fi will remain a core technology for large venues for a long time.
Similar to large public venues, transportation hubs like airports must focus on capacity. Wi-Fi will continue to be a priority. Wi-Fi also has an advantage in international transportation settings (again, airports) because of its global harmonization and free (usually) model. In contrast, cellular international roaming charges are more complicated (usually) and vary widely.
When it comes to true mobile networks, like buses, trains, and others, Wi-Fi leverages cellular gateways for backhaul. I suspect this will be another area where free public Wi-Fi will likely fall away in favor of public cellular plans and hotspot tethering.
I’ll be the first to admit that most of the 5G versus Wi-Fi conversation is horse manure. For the most part, I’m in the “technologies are complementary” camp. But there are some segments where the Wi-Fi and cellular interests are combative. I think coffee shops are an early battleground. Wi-Fi has clear strengths. Cellular has clear strengths. Over time, I think cellular will be victorious at your local coffee shop.