As such a vital part of our future, WiFi has a big problem that's not often discussed, but that anyone betting on it needs to be aware of. The phone companies of the world have built themselves nice profitable mobile phone cartels in nearly every country with a functioning government, based on convincing governments that without monopoly rights to airwaves and ideas, the world would fall apart. Technically, we call this "regulatory capture" and "patents", but in fact it's just a form of blackmail and corruption. If you, the state, give me, a business, the right to overcharge, tax the market, and ban all real competitors, I'll give you 5%. Not enough? How about 10%? OK, 15% plus snacks. If you refuse, we pull service.
But WiFi snuck past this, borrowing unlicensed airspace and riding on the back of the open and unpatented and remarkably innovative Internet Protocol stack. So today, we have the curious situation where it costs me several Euro a minute to call from Seoul to Brussels if I use the state-backed infrastructure that we've subsidized over decades, but nothing at all if I can find an unregulated WiFi access point. Oh, and I can do video, send files and photos, and download entire home movies all for the same amazing price point of precisely zero point zero zero (in any currency you like). God help me if I try to send just one photo home using the service for which I actually pay. That would cost me more than the camera I took it on.
It is the price we pay for having tolerated the "trust us, we're the experts" patent system for so long. But more than that, it's a massive economic incentive to chunks of the technology sector—and especially chipset makers who own patents on the anti-Internet GSM, GPRS, 3G, and LTE stacks, and who treat the telcos as prime clients—to actively throttle WiFi development. And of course it's these firms that bulk out the IEEE committees that define WiFi.
The reason for this rant against lawyer-driven "innovation" is to steer your thinking towards "what if WiFi were really free?" This will happen one day, not too far off, and it's worth betting on. We'll see several things happen. First, much more aggressive use of airspace especially for near-distance communications where there is no risk of interference. Second, big capacity improvements as we learn to use more airspace in parallel. Third, acceleration of the standardization process. Last, broader support in devices for really interesting connectivity.
Right now, streaming a movie from your phone to your TV is considered "leading edge". This is ridiculous. Let's get truly ambitious. How about a stadium of people watching a game, sharing photos and HD video with each other in real time, creating an ad-hoc event that literally saturates the airspace with a digital frenzy. I should be able to collect terabytes of imagery from those around me, in an hour. Why does this have to go through Twitter or Facebook and that tiny expensive mobile data connection? How about a home with hundreds of devices all talking to each other over mesh, so when someone rings the doorbell, the porch lights stream video through to your phone or TV? How about a car that can talk to your phone and play your dubstep playlist without you plugging in wires.
To get more serious, why is our digital society in the hands of central points that are monitored, censored, logged, used to track who we talk to, collect evidence against us, and then shut down when the authorities decide we have too much free speech? The loss of privacy we're living through is only a problem when it's one-sided, but then the problem is calamitous. A truly wireless world would bypass all central censorship. It's how the Internet was designed, and it's quite feasible, technically (which is the best kind of feasible).