Wi-Fi deployments come in a wide variety of models suited to different purposes, and the competitive landscape is filled out by major telcos and cellular services providing thousands of hotspots; hotspot specialty providers; institutional hotspot providers; and various types of service aggregators and roaming agreements. Additionally, as the networks can be set up for less than $100, individual hotspots can—and are—deployed almost anywhere. While the gigantic metropolitan mesh network projects started to collapse in 2007 to 2008, with Earthlink ultimately leaving the business and MetroCell going under, numerous metropolitan wide and business district deployments still exist, and interest is being renewed as smartphones and tablets strain the resources of 3G vendors and the budgets of mobile data users.
The tribulations of metro Wi-Fi were seen as portending the imminent death of Wi-Fi by pundits outside of the industry. In fact, they could hardly have been more wrong. Even as these efforts garnered sustained media attention for their possibilities, successes and failings, Wi-Fi hotspot networks were quietly sweeping the globe. Free Wi-FI access has recently become a commodity in hotels, cafes and airports, and airplanes are increasingly offering Wi-Fi to their patrons to meet the insatiable data and communications needs of an exploding array of Wi-Fi enabled smart mobile devices.
Because there are so many instances, and coverage of this unique market has lagged, this report will only attempt to look at some of the networks and deployment categories that are of growing importance in the second decade of the 21st Century.
Chinese Telco Wi-Fi
Even as interest in Metro Wi-Fi waned in the West, Chinese mobile operators have headed into the fray. China Telecom has deployed over 300,000 Hotspots, largely in Southern China; China Mobile has a concentration on Wi-Fi and a slogan of building a “wireless city” and China Unicom is ramping up its Wi-Fi equipment purchases as well.
In his keynote address to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in Feburary, 2011, China Mobile CEO Wang Jianzhou told the that Wi-Fi should be the default for mobile users because smartphones and tablets are killing cellular networks. China Mobile is by far the world’s largest mobile company, with over 600 million subscribers.
Key observations were:
- Handset makers should embed Wi-Fi and make it the default connection.
- China Mobile will have 1 million Wi-Fi hotspots by 2013 years
- Wireless cellular networks will never be able to keep up with mobile data demand and therefore, Wi-Fi must be rolled out in public areas to offload data traffic.
China Mobile is now making a major move into Wi-Fi and is looking to acquire companies in that space.
Meanwhile, rival China Telecom announced in February, 2011, that it will raise the number of its Wi-Fi hotspots to one million by the end of 2012 to meet rising demand for mobile Internet. This is part of China Telecom’s February campaign to promote broadband in the domestic market for the next three years. The company intends to expand Wi-Fi coverage to public areas that have a high population density such as office buildings, airports and coffee bars. It is also in talks with Air China and Hainan Airlines to launch the first in-flight Internet access service in China during 2011.
China Telecom currently has about 300,000 Wi-Fi, mainly in South China. The company expects to roll out 400,000 Wi-Fi more hotspots during 2011, reaching the 1 million target in 2012.
The third player, China Unicom, has a much smaller Wi-Fi base, with only 25,000 hot spots in 2009 and still far behind other two operators to 2011. However, the company began selling Apple’s iPhone with Wi-Fi support in August, 2010 after initial restrictions due to government regulations prohibiting the sale of Wi-Fi devices that don’t support China’s Wired Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure wireless standard. The iPhone could increase the company’s Wi-Fi presence.
China’s three telecom carriers are adopting an increasingly aggressive attitude towards Wi-Fi network deployment in 2011, primarily as a way to relieve pressure on overburdened cellular 3G networks. Wi-Fi broadband networks can provide very high bandwidth local connections at fractional deployment costs.
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