The motor car has been an icon of freedom for generations, and gaining access to it is a well-established rite of passage for young people in search of a new level of independence. Necessary regulation around driving age and instruction has served only to cement the milestone passed when you get your first driving license.
But the growth of the smartphone, in particular the recent proliferation of entry level devices, has meant that, today, digital highways are open to young people long before physical ones, bringing a virtual freedom that stretches far further than any strip of tarmac. The notion of “being mobile” now has more to do with connectivity than cars, and there are signs that this digital freedom is even having an impact on the traditional longing to drive the open road.
A recent story in the Australian media about a plan to bring free Wi-Fi to the transport network of the city of Perth cited rapid growth in the network’s usage by commuters in the 18 – 25 age group. This segment now accounts for 38% of all train use and 36% of all bus use in the city, up from 30% just four years ago. Here’s the interesting part: The story quotes an academic who attributes the increase to the need of this age-group to maximize their connectivity-dependent online activities; something they cannot do while driving.
The wireless industry often talks about how improved connectivity can change consumers’ smartphone usage habits. Our own illustration of how the delivery of an integrated Wi-Fi and cellular service leads consumers to ‘supersize’ their data consumption is a case in point. But as a sector we talk less about how connectivity, and consumers’ enthusiasm for it, is affecting behavior more generally.
In other sectors, though, it is much discussed. The hotel and travel industry have done a great deal to highlight the importance of good quality, free Wi-Fi to tourists and business travellers, something which is increasingly factored into decisions on where to stay. Retailers, restaurants and other service industry businesses are equally attuned to the fact that people want Wi-Fi connectivity, and will gravitate to places where they know they can find it. And transport authorities and operators from Kenya to Kansas, and everywhere between, are busy giving customers Wi-FI connectivity that is appropriate to their immediate circumstances.
The Australian story’s focus on the youth segment, often described as Generation Y, is important. These young consumers will mature into the mass market, taking their preferences and attitudes into the mainstream; they’re trendsetters. Love of Wi-Fi is one of their key connectivity characteristics, something being leveraged with increasing effect by Wi-Fi First operators and MVNOs. Check out Freewheel’s ‘Generation Wi-Fi’ messaging if you want an example.
So on the one hand we have every type of consumer-facing business imaginable offering Wi-Fi as a value add, and on the other we have a new wave of Wi-Fi First and disruptors — now including Google — muscling more directly into the traditional mobile operator territory.
What, then, can mobile operators take from this? First, the understanding that, as far as consumers are concerned, smartphone connectivity is much bigger than any one network. Second, numerous businesses are striving to demonstrate that understanding in the services they provide. Some are direct competitors to mobile operators, others are simply responding to the fact that the cellular network cannot be relied upon to deliver the best experience at all times in their premises or properties. This latter group may not be direct competitors, but they are providing a connectivity alternative to that offered by operators.
Third, they cannot ignore the wider context: Wi-Fi accounts for the great majority of smartphone data consumption, a share that will surely continue to grow as ever more businesses make Wi-Fi connectivity available to their customers. This means that mobile operators manage a (possibly dwindling) minority of the smartphone experience, something that carries with it the real threat of diminishing relevance.
The opportunity within this scenario lies in mobile operators extending their management of the connectivity experience to include Wi-Fi; and not just the Wi-Fi that they might have deployed themselves. Our studies show that, today: 53% of smartphone users keep Wi-Fi switched off in public, 71% connect to Wi-Fi inconsistently and 83% find Wi-Fi connectivity too complex. The result, given the number of smartphones in circulation and the amount of amenity Wi-Fi already deployed, is that 91% of public Wi-Fi connections that could improve the user experience actually go unrealized.
Mobile operators could dramatically improve this situation. They could deliver a greatly enhanced Connectivity First experience that integrates cellular and Wi-Fi to deliver quality, simplicity and security across the piece. They could extend and secure their relevance by doing so. Or they could just stick to the path they’re used to travelling.
That might turn out to be a perilous journey, though. As Bob Dylan wrote during one of the great ages of the automobile: “The old road is rapidly aging. Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand…”