Who will win the WiFi Olympics?

There's a race starting for your WiFi business

 My guess is that you and I probably use WiFi in the same way: I’m a heavy user of WiFi at home and in the office, but when I’m on the move, I rely on my cellular data network. But with five distinct contenders all racing for my business, this is probably about to change – the only question is who will win? 

1. The Mobile Network Operator

No question about it – we are becoming data hogs.  FierceWireless’ Phil Goldstein makes this quite clear as he references new Nielsen stats showing that average mobile users in the US have doubled their usage from last year. 

And while this might be great news for mobile network operators in terms of revenues, it’s a problem  in terms of our demands on capacity because even with LTE, they will still be hard-pressed to stay ahead of our astonishing consumption levels of mobile data. That’s why they’re looking at HetNets as a possible answer. However, this solution will depend upon the ability of the network itself to seamlessly offload data by automatically switching from a cellular data network to a WiFi hotspot that is either owned by the operators or has a partner agreement with them. That’s something that still hasn’t happened (yet). 

2. The Wireline Operator

While wireline operators are still relevant – I use a LOT of data when I’m at home – they want to stay  relevant. One way of doing this, which has been adopted by wireline and cable operators, is to offer “free” WiFi:  in the US, Bright House Networks, Cablevision, Comcast, Cox Communications and Time Warner Cable, are joining forces by offering “CableWiFi”. This partnership will enable each other’s high-speed Internet customers to access their metro WiFi networks, totaling over 50,000 “free” WiFi hotspots. 

VoIP Watch’s Andy Abramson has some insights about what this means for mobile network operators:  

“This idea is a long time coming and it clearly pits the multi-service operators against the wireless operators. It also means that the idea of WiFi offload is going to get very interesting. For example, if you subscribe to a video or music service that comes over your mobile phone, and now you’re on a cable operator’s WiFi network, will they let it pass if they offer the same content? Who gets the commercial insertions? We’re talking big-time rights issues and money” 

And the problem for users is that it isn’t going to be transparent: subscribers have to find the nearest WiFi hotspots themselves, rather than via an automatic handover. 

3. The Town Hall

Some cities think that offering free WiFi to their residents is the way to go – people like to communicate on the move and hopefully, it could encourage more tourists and business people. 

There are already quite a few municipal WiFi initiatives around, but has anyone out there tried the NY payphone one yet? Mashable’s Alex Fitzpatrick has…  

“Connecting was easy: We simply selected “NYC-PUBLIC-WIFI” from the list of available networks, then agreed to the terms and conditions of the service. Standing right beside the payphones, we recorded speeds of 6.08mpbs down and .07mpbs up. 

Those aren’t lightning-fast numbers, but for a free and public service, they’re not too shabby — just don’t plan on downloading a full-length movie through a payphone hotspot any time soon. Oh, and don’t cross the street — there, you’ll find only 1.02mbps down and .06mbps up”. 

Fitzpatrick has thoughtfully demonstrated two  problems that I have with these services: 

*   Capacity isn’t being managed in the sense that no one is committed to me, so the speeds can be anything from fine to unworkable. 
*   It requires me to manually select a network, open a browser, agree to conditions, and generally speaking to commit to the network instead of seamlessly using it without any effort. 

(That said, I will definitely be trying it out for myself on my next trip to NYC). 

4. The Transport Company

How about WiFi on the go? In a bus, underground or a train? Well, if you were lucky enough to be in London for the Olympics, you would have enjoyed free WiFi on “the tube”. But as GigaOm’s Bobbie Johnson reports, Paris is trying to catch up, with free WiFi now available at a selection of Metro stations. 

Some of these initiatives are being launched as free services, or are being promoted as free services during vacation time. As to whether they will stay free or become a paid service is anyone’s guess. 

5. The Wi-Fi Service Provider

Ever thought about using a service provider  like Boingo that only supplies WiFi?  iPass is another one, offering roaming solutions for WiFi that span the world. When you’re on the go, these solutions can be great. But they do cost some extra money and involve a contract with an additional service provider. 

So in the future, when I leave my house, will my smartphone connect up to the WiFi networks of my cellular service provider? Or will it lean towards “sniffing” out my ADSL service provider’s WiFi hotspots? Maybe it will just sync up with the free WiFi in our business area downtown, courtesy of our forward-thinking mayor. Or perhaps, I’ll just grab a bus or a subway and use the free WiFi offered there. 

It’s a decision that hopefully in the near future will be made for me automatically and I won’t have to think about it. I just wonder which one out of the five will emerge as the winner in the WiFi connectivity race. 



  1. Tali Dulin
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 1:55 am | Permalink

    Interesting post Tsahi. Regarding 4, apparently Egged Buses have WIFI already.

  2. Simone Arena
    Posted October 4, 2012 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    Nice post Tsahi. I think that HotSpot 2.0/WiFi Passpoint is addressing your “seamless and secure connection to a hotspot” concern. The first devices are being certified and the wifi network vendors have HS2.0 support already on the infrastructure. We are not there yet, but this will change the game making it easy (read transparent), as it is today with cellular, to connect to wifi.

  3. Posted October 4, 2012 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    Thanks Simone!

    The question still stands – who is going to be the big winner – especially once that happens.
    My bet is on the MNO in this case. Somehow, being tied to an SLA (that I most likely already pay for through a bundled package) is something that gives me more comfort than trying to connect to a free service.

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