Smartphone and tablet users prefer using Wi-Fi over cellular connections, and consider Wi-Fi cheaper, faster, easier to use, more reliable and, even, slightly more secure than cellular.
These attitudes, reflected in an online survey in March of 1,079 U.S. mobile users, surprised a research team at Cisco, which makes networking equipment, including wireless routers. Most experts consider cellular networks such as 4G LTE to be inherently more secure than Wi-Fi.
"The surprising thing is that while cellular networks are more secure, people perceive Wi-Fi as being as good as or better than cellular," said Stuart Taylor, director of the Internet Business Solutions Group at Cisco, which conducted the research.
He said that Wi-Fi can be made more secure with passwords, but it is generally considered susceptible to sniffing and other attacks that aren't as easy with a cellular connection.
Still, the survey found that 35% of smartphone and tablet users found Wi-Fi to be the most secure, compared with 34% for cellular networks. Except for cellular offering the "best coverage," more respondents, by a wider margin, also found Wi-Fi desirable over cellular for its lower cost, speed, reliability, best performance for applications and ease of use. Coverage is also improving for Wi-Fi as more and more free hotspots emerge, Cisco noted.
The findings reflect the growth of Wi-Fi in recent years, as it has become more widely used in homes and public gathering spots, as well as offices and businesses. It wasn't too long ago that some cellular companies opposed having smartphones work over Wi-Fi, Taylor noted.
The survey found on average that smartphone users who pay for cellular plans still use Wi-Fi about a third of the time. In two years, Cisco expects that smartphone users will access Wi-Fi about half of the time, with the other 50% spent accessing via cellular.
Cisco also found that about half of tablet, laptop and e-readers users already connect exclusively through Wi-Fi already. "Given a choice, more than 80% of tablet, laptop and e-reader owners would either prefer Wi-Fi to [cellular] access, or have no preference," the survey said.
Cellular providers have come to realize that Wi-Fi can be a supplement to their networks, especially when they are crowded, Taylor said. Emerging standards, such as Hotspot 2.0, also called PassPoint, will make authentication of smartphones entering Wi-Fi zones simpler.
"There's a real push in the retail environment to offer Wi-Fi," Taylor said. Some retailers have begun to notice that shoppers carry smartphones and other mobile devices, which can supply information on sales and directions around the store rather than having to rely on stationary kiosks that take up store space and can be costly.
In general, Taylor said the survey shows that Wi-Fi is a "viable competitor" to cellular networks. As carriers introduce limits on cellular data plans, Wi-Fi could become even more valuable.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.