Number of Wi-Fi hotspots to quadruple by 2015

Users will be able to access 5.8 million Wi-Fi hotspots in four years

The number of public Wi-Fi hotspots is expected to increase by 350% in the next four years, as operators look for ways to offload traffic from their mobile networks, according to a report by market research company Informa Telecoms and Media.

By 2015, users around the world will be able to connect to 5.8 million public hotspots, Informa wrote in the "Global developments in public Wi-Fi" report, which was commissioned by Wireless Broadband Alliance. WBA members include AT&T, Boingo, Cisco Systems, Deutsche Telekom and Google. Its goal is to make Wi-Fi services easier to use.

Mobile data growth is a key reason for the rapid build-out of Wi-Fi hotspots, according to Informa. On Monday, telecom equipment vendor Ericsson published a report which contends that mobile data traffic will grow tenfold in 2G, 3G and 4G networks between 2011 and 2016.

To handle the growth, operators will have to use a number of different technologies, including Wi-Fi, LTE (Long Term Evolution) and traffic shaping, according to Thomas Wehmeier, principal analyst at Informa.

Users don't care about acronyms like 3G, 4G or Wi-Fi, as long as their network connection works well, according to the WBA.

However, to increase usage, hotspots also have to become easier to use. Operators and vendors are working on integrating mobile networks and Wi-Fi hotspots more closely, including using SIM cards to simplify the log-in procedure and roaming between different networks.

The Wi-Fi Alliance is next year planning to launch a certification program that will offer standardized mechanisms for discovery, authentication and provisioning. The program will be based on its Hotspot 2.0 specification, which also used by the Wireless Broadband Alliance as it trials next-generation hotspots. In June, the two organizations said they will cooperate on developing hotspots.

But the buildout of Wi-Fi hotspots isn't just about offloading data. Telefonica is using Wi-Fi to build a location-based services and earlier this year hotspot provider The Cloud was acquired by British Sky Broadcasting Group, which is mostly known for its satellite TV services.

The report also highlights the proliferation of smartphones, which will soon overtake laptops as the most popular way to connect to hotspots. Globally, smartphones account for 36% of all connections, compared to 48% for laptops and 10% for tablets. However, in North America smartphones already outnumber laptop connections, according to Informa.

Informa defines public hotspots as a place that offers Internet access to all members of the public, either for a fee or for free. The report excludes 4.5 million community hotspots, where consumers today share their broadband connection with others using equipment from Fon.

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