Since the first Wi-Fi networks appeared near the year 2000, the technology has been evolving according to the Wi-Fi Alliance and the IEEE standards for 802.11 and its family of protocols. During the last years the most common standards for Wi-Fi has been 802.11b/g, and more recently 802.11n, operating in the 2.4 and 5GHz frequencies and allowing browsing rates of up to 600Mbps. In the near future, the standard 802.11ac should be also popular in the Wi-Fi capable devices, operating in the 5GHz frequency and allowing browsing rates over 1Gbps… and so on, the evolution in the Wi-Fi technology devices is most likely to continue.
Nevertheless, despite the evolution commented, we have seen the services offered by the network operators for Wi-Fi in the last decade were pretty much the same originally offered since day one. The Wi-Fi was typically seen as a technology that allowed the subscribers connecting from their homes and/or offices, without being able to monetize the usage any further than a flat rate, nor providing any interesting services for the subscribers outside these places. Mainly because of the lack of control for the subscribers’ traffic in their homes and offices, due to the original access technology used (e.g. ADSL, cable, fibre, etc.), and because offering Wi-Fi in public areas was not profitable nor feasible in business and technical terms.
Luckily this situation has being changing in the recent years, and let me say it was about time. The network operators and service providers are realizing the potential of the Wi-Fi, and the impact it has in the subscribers’ life. The fact that more than 70% of the total data traffic currently done is accessed over Wi-Fi networks is a solid reason to support it. The hotels, stores, and coffee shops were the first to realize about this opportunity, allowing their customers free Wi-Fi access as a way to attract consumers, among other strategies. The operators also started to be creative in the Wi-Fi offers, making sure solid business opportunities exists for supporting the investment in Wi-Fi access points in public places. The classical example is the open zones, as the ones from BT in the UK, covering high usage density zones and subway stations, etc. with free Wi-Fi for those customers who already have a service contracted with BT, this as a way to reward loyalty, reduce churn, or however you prefer to call it.
Recently, a more creative and innovative strategy is being used by operators like O2, also in the UK, allowing any user (from any company) to use their Wi-Fi network composed by hundreds of access points deployed in the main districts of London. Their business in this last case is directly with the stores and companies in these districts, where O2 offers them a chargeable service to have access points near their stores locations. Attracting customers for them and providing them with the detailed statistics of the usage done by these subscribers in the Wi-Fi networks, as a way to provide targeted commercial campaigns, etc. This service is still improving O2 service image and recruiting churners from other companies… and I would say while still rewarding loyalty (here). Another example could be Google, who proposes another approach in their recent agreement with Starbucks. In this case they are taking over the access provided by AT&T in more than 7000 branches, and replacing it with an incredibly faster Wi-Fi service by increasing the backhaul capacity 10 times, rewarding people for consuming at Starbucks while Google’s image is improved, without mentioning the obvious economic agreement benefits (here).
The Wi-Fi opportunity is not only for increasing revenue from a service provider or an operator point of view, but it can also be used as a way to encourage evolution. The recent example is South Korea, where the government has announced they will expand their current free Wi-Fi network coverage to provide nationwide service in the next 4 years. A Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning official said, “Expansion of Wi-Fi areas will ease financial burdens on consumers and help narrow the information gap between people in Seoul and other cities” (here). Examples like this and the deployment seen during the Olympics in London last year, show how the technology, and particularly the Wi-Fi, is becoming a need for the users in today’s connected world.