Wi-Fi hotspots get a second wind

Wi-Fi can be used to complement mobile broadband service

Wi-Fi hotspots are back in the spotlight, with more operators getting onboard. Cheaper international data roaming, better indoor coverage and the ubiquity of built-in support for Wi-Fi will help hotspots remain relevant in a mobile broadband centric world, according to operators.

Qwest has partnered with AT&T to offer its high-speed Internet subscribers free access to 17,000 hotspots, it said on May 7, and Verizon Communications is getting ready to partner with Boingo Wireless to do the same, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

But it's not just U.S. operators that are showing more interest in Wi-Fi hotspots. Tele2 Sweden has signed a deal with The Cloud -- whose European network covers 7,000 locations in 12 countries -- to offer its customers Internet access via 700 Wi-Fi hotspots, including some in McDonalds restaurants, in the Scandinavian countries.

"We feel that the market has now become mature enough for us to launch a service; more and more of our customers have started asking if this is something we are going to offer," said Annika Kristersson, public relations manager at Tele2 Sweden.

The Tele2 service will launch in the middle of June, but the operator isn't ready to talk about pricing, according to Kristersson.

The growing interest in hotspots is backed by AT&T and Tele2's Swedish competitor TeliaSonera, which has its own network of hotspots. For the first three months of 2009, AT&T recently said it had 10.5 million Wi-Fi connections, more than triple the amount for the first quarter of 2008.

It's not just professionals using hotspots, but more consumers as well, according Ian Keene, research vice president at Gartner. "I only have to go into my local bar where I live and see people using hotspots for all kinds of things, and none of them seem work related," he said.

TeliaSonera doesn't want to detail the traffic growth in its hotspots, but it's significant, according to Tommy Ljunggren, head of TeliaSonera's mobile network.

"Hotspots are especially good when you have a lot of people in one small place. Then its a lot more effective to WLAN and a hotspot, compared to trying to build a turbo 3G base station ... but it's also very ineffective if you pick the wrong spot," said Ljunggren. Using Wi-Fi as a complement to mobile broadband has several advantages, according to its proponents.

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