Accessing the Internet while away from the home or office has never been easier. When there’s no Wi-Fi available users can jump on 3G broadband to get their online fix. And that’s the way it has generally been, with the two main mobile communications technologies acting as complementary services. But with the advent of Wi-Fi based municipal wireless networks, such as that launched by AT&T in New York's Times Square and by a well-known supermarket chain across all its stores, some experts say there is a strong possibility that Wi-Fi will compete with the 3G cell phone network in city areas and perhaps even become a substitute.

Wi-Fi offers users network access based on hot-spot connections through a local-area network (LAN), while 3G does so through cell phone masts forming a wide-area network (WAN). Both then provide connectivity to the web, email and other services. In theory, Wi-Fi networks should be at least three times faster than 3G broadband but, as any regular user of both services will tell you, the reality is very different. Because the 3G spectrum is a limited, licensed and therefore more valuable resource it is more efficiently managed than Wi-Fi, which operates on unlicensed spectrum. So when there is a lot of traffic on both, it is usually the Wi-Fi network users that notice it first with slow loading web pages and stuttering video and audio.

Seungjae Shin of Mississippi State University - Meridian and Martin Weiss of the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have investigated how 3G and Wi-Fi would actually compete for users given a particular set of circumstances, costs, and availability. Their findings demonstrate which of the two technologies would be the winner in terms of market penetration and coverage percentages.

Their analysis shows that the 3G network would become more profitable as Wi-Fi coverage percentage increases, and that 3G is more favorable in areas of high population density. In contrast, Wi-Fi has the advantage when the market has a high penetration rate but a low coverage area. Until now, municipal wireless networks have not being active in big cities across the USA and the 3G cell phone service itself is relatively new and only being adopted as so-called smart phones become more prevalent and replaces old-style cell phones. As such, there has been little competition between the two wireless communications protocols.

Shin and Weiss point out that substituting Wi-Fi for 3G would cut costs of mobile workers and others who need access to broadband Internet services when not at devices connected directly to the Internet, such as desktop computers. The team also suggests that as the market matures and competition increases between the two network service systems, the detailed results of the analysis will help to serve as a guideline for providers of either system to ensure mobile internet access that is not only ubiquitous, but hopefully also cheaper for end users.

The team's study, "Analysis of mobile broadband competition: 3G vs. Wi-Fi" appears in Volume 8, 2010 of the International Journal of Mobile Communications.