Forget 4G – 2013 Could Be Wi-Fi’s Year

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With all the hype around the rollout of 4G mobile broadband, it’s easy to forget that 2012 was a big year for public Wi-Fi access. Figures released by The Cloud, the Wi-Fi operator owned by BSkyB, bear out the sense that public hotspots have rapidly become an important way for many of us to get online.The firm said on Friday that use of its hotspots on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day was three times higher this year in terms of minutes spent online than during the same three days in 2011.

Christmas Eve was particularly busy – four times busier than last year – as shoppers and party goers used hotspots on high streets, and in restaurants and bars. The Cloud’s network covers JD Wetherspoons pubs, Pizza Express and the Westfield shopping centres.

Although these figures cover only one provider in a crowded market, 2012 was clearly a vintage year for public Wi-Fi.

In London, for instance, London Underground and Overground stations got hotspots, Westminster council did a deal with O2 to blanket the West End, and Transport for London approved a plan to offer free Wi-Fi in exchange for viewing advertisements in black cabs.

Microsoft-owned Skype said it would install free hotspots in shops nationwide, and BT continued to build out what it says is the biggest public Wi-Fi network in the world, helped by its broadband subscribers, who it encourages to allow other customers to use their Home Hub access the internet. Virgin Media Business is bringing free public Wi-Fi to Leeds and Bradford.

There are two trends driving this renaissance of a market that for years seemed stale. First, and most obvious, is the rapid uptake of smartphones and tablets. Where it is available, public Wi-Fi is, typically, a faster and more reliable way to access the internet than 3G, and for most it’s cheaper too.

On top of this, according to analysts, nine out of 10 tablets sold in the United States are Wi-Fi-only and there is no evidence to suggest the British market is significantly different. For most of the hundreds of thousands of new British tablet owners this week, public Wi-Fi will be the only option if they want to use their new gadget in the wild.

The second main trend driving the growth of public Wi-Fi is a function of competition in the telecoms market. Like BSkyB, BT and O2, other mobile and fixed line operators know they now need public Wi-Fi in their mobile and home broadband bundles to appeal to and retain customers.

Happily for consumers, they seem willing to share their infrastructures so coverage is as broad as possible. Virgin Media, for instance, will allow Vodafone and EE (including Orange and T-Mobile) subscribers to use the network it has built on the London Underground once it becomes a commercial offering next year.

All this makes the already complex economics of 4G rollout even more difficult to disentangle. With the other mobile operators expected to begin switching on their masts to compete with EE from spring onwards, during 2013 it’s likely that 4G coverage will not spread far beyond major cities, where public Wi-Fi is already bedded in and increasingly successful.

So while next year will see a blitz of publicity around 4G in the press, online on television and on billboards, in the real world it’s likely that many Britons will quite sensibly judge that public Wi-Fi meets their needs.