Recently Maravedis Rethink issued a report predicting huge growth in public Wi-Fi. The research forecast the availability of 47.7 million public Wi-Fi hotspots by the end of this year, growing to 340 million by the end of 2018. That is exciting and underscores the increasingly ubiquitous nature of Wi-Fi and its established position as a key network for consumers and service providers.
Interestingly, most of this Wi-Fi – almost 40 million of the 2014 year-end total, in fact – is community Wi-Fi, which at Devicescape we refer to as “club Wi-Fi.” Broadband providers deliver it by making a small but important change to the capabilities of the routers and modems their customers use in the home. Instead of the routers being purely for private use, the software is modified so that a portion of the bandwidth can be accessed by any of their other customers.
Since there are millions of domestic customers using these routers, a large network can be built pretty quickly. And, if you can somehow link all of these disparate Wi-Fi networks from different service providers together, you can create get a single, over-arching network, which allows roaming for anyone in the club.
Sounds great! Here are a few observations, though: First, this is a network of primarily residential hotspots in people’s homes. It’s not clear how people who pay for internet service will feel about their service being co-opted so that others can use it. Neither is it clear, in all cases, whether users even know this is being done.
Furthermore, although the scale of such a network is impressive, you have to wonder just how accessible this kind of ‘public Wi-Fi’ is to the public. Most homes don’t have too many visitors every day. The average Starbucks, on the other hand, has more than 400. To offer genuine utility, public Wi-Fi has to be available in public places.
Second, let’s look at what free really means. With club Wi-Fi users have to pay their club membership fees (or monthly broadband subscription) to gain access. It’s not apparent if users get roaming access included in the subscription, or if they get access to the wider network with an uplift. Either way, this is not free public Wi-Fi – and free public Wi-Fi is what users increasingly expect to be able to access when they’re out and about.
At Devicescape, we have built our Curated Virtual Network from free public Wi-Fi in the public spaces where it offers the most utility to end users. Currently it covers more than 20 million locations, most of which have many visitors every day. We call this form of public Wi-Fi “amenity Wi-Fi” because it’s offered free of charge by the venue owner to support their primary business.
Amenity Wi-Fi is a mega-trend that represents huge value to both user and provider and is fundamentally different from the ‘club Wi-Fi’ discussed in the Maravedis-Rethink report. Different, but complementary: In combination, amenity and club Wi-Fi create an even richer connectivity experience. The huge CVN delivers capacity and reach in public spaces that is often far greater than, say, the cellular network can offer, while the club Wi-Fi in users’ private residences offers an excellent network for everyone who’s a fully paid-up club member. The end result is more connectivity options for all of us, which should be celebrated.
Finally, a bit of a statement on Devicescape’s philosophy: no matter where the network is, or what it’s built from, it’s only valuable if it’s easy to use, quality controlled, and safe. Public Wi-Fi, club Wi-F and curated Wi-Fi can all offer these three essential attributes if managed carefully, positioning Wi-Fi to perfectly for its increasingly central role in keeping us Always Best Connected.