Public WiFi Is Cool Again; What Can It Bring to the Enterprise?

K. Weldon
K. Weldon

Summary Bullets:

  • Use of WiFi is on the rise among both operators facing congested networks and enterprises looking for cost-savings, especially for international roaming.
  • Budding efforts are on the way to streamline the user experience; allow seamless, secure roaming; and make WiFi usage less of a hassle for travelers.

Nearly all new smartphones, tablets, e-readers, and laptops have WiFi built-in, and for many of these devices, WiFi is the only network option.  However, the use of public hotspots has suffered from spotty coverage, inconsistent performance, security concerns, and a painful sign-up experience.  There are too many providers for any frequent traveler to track.  However, since carriers stopped offering unlimited 3G plans, and with the cost of international roaming still a big concern, businesses now need WiFi more than ever.  Wireless operators are joining the bandwagon, as high data and video usage on their networks causes congestion problems which are only going to get worse.  A number of different service providers and vendors are addressing how they can improve the WiFi experience and make it a viable complement to 3G/4G cellular.

T-Mobile USA has long embraced WiFi to let customers bypass international roaming for voice calls.  It is also working with “smart WiFi” solutions providers such as Kineto to develop a more sophisticated WiFi client that sets preferences for the kinds of traffic that can be used over home WLANs vs. free public hotspots vs. vetted hotspots accessed by subscription.  T- Mobile uses iPass’ Open Mobile Exchange for its Global Corporate Access solution, which offers up to five devices with the same login for a flat monthly fee and provides access to 600,000 worldwide hotspots.  iPass is also partnering with Deutsche Telekom, which offers its capabilities to wholesale carrier partners.  The solution is intended to offload the cellular network wherever possible.

AT&T is also a major proponent of WiFi.  The carrier has deployed “hotzone” areas of WiFi concentration in high-traffic areas.  Since AT&T owns its own WiFi network, it can provide access free of charge to existing customers, gaining significant offload benefits.  This is especially important since AT&T’s original iPhone launch demonstrated what could happen when cellular data networks are overwhelmed.  In Q3 2011, AT&T stated that its subscribers made 302 million WiFi connections.  Other companies are also in the game: Towerstream is building out carrier-grade WiFi networks outdoors, optimized for offload.  Boingo offers enterprise and group plans for access to its 400,000 worldwide access points.  Cisco and the WiFi Alliance are driving Hotspot 2.0, to make WiFi roaming between hotspots and with cellular networks a seamless and consistent experience.  Cable companies such as Shaw Communications, Comcast, Time Warner, and Cablevision are also looking to WiFi in a big way, building out outdoor networks in major cities to cater to their consumer and SMB customers and stave off telco competition.  In New York City, some WiFi providers have allied for free roaming on each other’s networks.

Perhaps someday we can all use our smartphones and tablets, set our preferences, and have worry-free and less expensive options as we travel. For now, it’s still “hit or miss.”  There is nothing like trying to log onto a WiFi network for a “day pass” while sitting in the gate area of an airport and not being able to get through the long sign-up process before boarding the plane.

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