Unlicensed Spectrum: A One-Man WiFi-Only Experiment

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March 4th, 2015

A recent WSJ article (subscription required) by Ryan Knutson begins with the provocative question “Do you really need a wireless phone company?”  A few sentences later he notes that while “[i]t is almost impossible to imagine life without a cellphone…imagining life without a cellphone bill is getting a lot easier.”

To address his “do we need a wireless phone company” research question, Knutson undertook a one-person experiment.  As he explains:

For 30 days beginning in January, I disconnected my iPhone from AT&T Inc. and lived entirely off the free Wi-Fi connections that are available nearly everywhere. It wasn’t exactly seamless…But with a few changes in habits, it was definitely doable…

There is a lot of technical help out there for people trying to cut the wireless link. A $5 app, Wi-Fi Map Pro, shows the locations of nearby hotspots even when your phone is offline, and it provides passwords to some private networks.

Knutson also suggests that a WiFi-only strategy has some benefits in countering what some consider a tendency toward addictive behavior among smartphone users.  Noting “the difference between habit and necessity,” he observes that:

After getting used to being unconnected for brief periods, I became less attached to the device itself and found myself checking my phone less often, even when I had service.

Knutson’s WSJ piece also includes some reporting on industry impacts of a shift to “WiFi-only” and “WiFi-first” usage.  While I’ll save discussion of this topic for later posts in this series, Knutson’s one-man experiment suggests these impacts could be disruptive, especially for incumbent wireless providers that have invested heavily in spectrum licenses and network infrastructure, and whose business models and stock price are closely tied to the strength of their cash flow margins.

Update:  I’d also recommend this NPR interview with Knutson about his WiFi-only experience, especially for anyone unable to access his WSJ article.

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