The dynamic since wired and wireless networks took positions side-by-side was that the former provides higher data rates-speed-and the latter much more flexibility. And so it went, for a few decades. Folks who wanted to download huge files, watch television or participate in a videoconference waited to get home or to the office. Those who needed the answer to a quick question or a small bit of data accessed it from the road.
That is changing, of course. The advent of 3.5G-which still is being deployed despite the birth of 4G-like services-closed the gap between the two delivery platforms. The advent of 4G will further equalize the playing field.
A couple of things are worth noting: While the speed discrepancy between wired and unwired is narrowing, the basic difference in ubiquity will stay the same. Put a bit more simply: Wireless and wired will grow closer, while the fixed versus mobile differentiation will remain the same.
That is driving an important transition. The bottom line is that wireless will increasingly take bits of entire classes of service-formerly the sole concern of the wired networks. This will become more apparent as 4G speeds up (in other words, when it really becomes 4G). Of course, that's been happening on the local-area network (LAN) front for a while, and to a small degree has happened in the consumer world-WiMax was first introduced as a cable modem or DSL substitute in areas (mostly rural) where the cable and phone companies couldn't be bothered to offer services.
The tendency of wireless to poach on wired territory will grow. This week, Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg essentially said that the company's Long Term Evolution (LTE) service is coming after the cable guys:
[Seidenberg] told analysts during an investor conference. He warned that while relatively newer technology such as wireless access is initially additive, it eventually starts to cut into discretionary spending for other services, particularly premium ones.
Though any crossover will start slowly, there is little doubt that the carrier sees it coming:
His comments come a few days after Verizon Wireless launched its fourth-generation service, which touts speeds that are comparable to landline access. While Mr. Seidenberg doesn't see a wholesale jump from wired Internet service to his 4G network, he does expect some customers to make the switch.
Late last month, In-Stat analyst Allen Nogee and I discussed the advent of "MiFi," and he made much the same point:
In wireless world we are going to 3G and 4G and faster and faster data speeds. The fact is once the data speed is up to wireline providers, there is no reason wireless can't serve homes the same as they serve mobile, assuming they are priced correctly. To this point, wireless operators provided [broadband services] to homes and remote areas where there is no DSL or cable. But there will be a point at which wireless will compete with cable and DSL. If they can get the speeds fast enough, they certainly are on a course to do that.
Nogee pointed out that Clearwire-which markets its product under the "Clear" label-is no stranger to standing in for cable and phone companies.
Certainly, Clear is a pioneer, but going forward Clear will be able to do that but [carriers such as] Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile will be able to do it as well.
Some of the most important transitions start subtly. Wireless seems to have quite an advantage, and one that grows as the network accelerates. Wired can't really become more flexible, while wireless can get faster and faster until it is the equal of wired-or until both are so fast that speed no longer is a factor.