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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Are mobile networks about to cut down on free WiFi?

Mark Bridge writes:

I don’t mind paying for a spot of WiFi when I need it. Admittedly I’d prefer to find a coffee shop with a free hotspot but I’ll pay if I really need a connection. Not just here in the UK but abroad too.

It seems I’m not alone. Today I saw details of a survey from cloud-based communications provider MACH. It caught my eye, not least because I’d spoken to the company at Mobile World Congress last year. Anyway, MACH had commissioned some research into roaming - and it’s revealed that many customers prefer WiFi to 3G when abroad because they can manage their costs better.

Lokdeep Singh, Chief Technology Officer at MACH, is quoted as saying “If operators can provide a seamless experience for the user to log onto WiFi and also integrate billing into their overall service capability, then their addressable market can be significantly expanded. It is also interesting that for a subscriber, control of costs is as much of a concern as the costs themselves. Consumers feel more in control of their costs with WiFi: it is not about just knowing that WiFi is cheaper, it is also about knowing that they will only spend a set amount and not go over it accidently.”

The idea of mobile operators charging for WiFi when abroad is a contrast to some services in the UK, where WiFi is included as part of the monthly cost. It’s an arrangement that suits everyone nicely: customers get a faster connection on WiFi, so it’s seen as a benefit... and networks get to offload some usage, freeing capacity for other customers.

T-Mobile has done this with The Full Monty tariff, which not only includes free 3G internet access but throws in free WiFi as well. However, there was a turn of phrase in the announcement that caught my eye.

“The Full Monty plan provides access to our preferred WiFi partner’s WiFi network; presently this is BT Openzone network excluding any sites providing access to any organisation or location which is part of the Olympic Games in London in 2012.”

Leaving aside the question of special Olympics WiFi zones, it seemed to me that T-Mobile wasn’t particularly committed to its current preferred partner. There was, at the very least, an implication the provider could change.

After all, that’s just happened over at O2. Gone is The Cloud from the list of suppliers, leaving T-Mobile’s current mate BT Openzone and O2’s own smaller hotspot collection.

Why?  Well, given the commercial nature of the agreement, I’d say money was the most likely cause.

And that raises a question.

With many mobile network operators uncomfortable about the idea of ‘unlimited’ mobile tariffs because of the cost implications and the risk of reduced quality for other users, is WiFi the next battleground?  Are those deals between mobile networks and hotspot providers getting a bit pricey as smartphone usage increases?

What’s next?  Will we soon be back to paying for wireless hotspots because it’s not viable to give away the bandwidth?  If so, I wonder what kind of incentives will be offered. I’m hoping someone will think of giving away a free cup of coffee with their WiFi.

Author: The Fonecast
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