Sprint is also working on the idea of packaging a set of 4G modems and other hardware into an off-the-shelf “office in a box.” “It would contain everything you needed to set up a new branch and connect it up,” says Azzi. One consequence might be the appearance of “pop-up” offices that can perform just like a more established location. For example, a firm that offers tax preparation services could rapidly set up an office to help a client on a deadline. “In the case of a natural disaster, an insurance firm could drop in a fully powered claims office very simply and quickly,” says Azzi.
But carriers will be hard-pressed to deliver on the promise of fast, tether-free connectivity in all kinds of environments. There are doubts that networks can keep pace with the demand for wireless data, a demand that’s growing 55 percent annually in North America, says ABI Research. And when people get access to more bandwidth, their appetite grows. According to Sprint, users of its first WiMAX capable phone—the EVO 4G—typically tripled their data usage.
The research firm Infinetics predicts that by 2013, there will be more North Americans connecting to the Internet via mobile broadband than via any other form of access—with enterprises expected to account for much of the demand.
Many in the industry think that making wireless competitive with wired will require as much business innovation as it will engineering. For instance, can wireless carriers charge enough to make pricey rollouts worthwhile? The era of flat pricing for wireless data already looks to be ending, and the next step might involve asking customers to pay for different tiers of service depending on their data demands.
Such a strategy could run counter to net-neutrality legislation that would mandate networks to treat all data packets the same. That was one of the motivations for Verizon’s recent controversial pact with Google advocating for different regulations for wired and wireless connections. Ultimately, net neutrality policy may become the biggest practical distinction between wired and wireless connections.