Seamless carrier WiFi is being promised for later this year, but how is it going to be priced and sold to users? Ian Scales reports.
WiFi is getting lots of attention at the CTIA mobile event in New Orleans this week. There's been a pitter-patter of carrier WiFi announcements of course (just as there were at MWC in February) but the spotlight has been on the WiFi Alliance's announcement of Passport, the culmination of its 'seamless' hotspot work and the enabler for the first wave of proper carrier WiFi services.
The WiFi Alliance has been working on WiFi standards for about a decade and 2012 has long been earmarked as the year the first services were due to kick off using the Hotspot 2.0 spec. Lots of operators are known to be engaging with the process, how many are ready to launch next month or even this year is unknown, but no doubt some will. Device and network kit certification begins next month.
So what do these standards do? According to the WiFi Alliance: "With Passpoint, devices automatically identify and join WiFi networks, and users are not required to complete a cumbersome manual login process. Passpoint automatically configures industry-standard WPA2 security protections without user intervention."
The device SIM will be used to authenticate devices (handsets, PCs and tablets) using the new standards and then users will find themselves floating gracefully between cell and WiFi operation as they move about and - presumably - as traffic demands change for the operator.
Passpoint also supports the newer faster IEEE 802.11 WiFi standard, also announced at CTIA, and it's envisaged that Passport-using carriers will forge international roaming agreements along the lines of those in place for cellular.
It all sounds like a sensible next step. The main bugbear for WiFi users - a moan heard constantly since WiFi was first introduced - is the tortuous login proceedure. So users should be delighted with the services as they roll out.
Certainly, ask users what they want (and of course the WiFi Alliance has done so with a research survey) and they'll say "bring it on". 87 per cent in the WiFi Alliances Passport survey say they want greater availability; 85 per cent would prefer to get WiFi service bundled with their cellular plan; 83 per cent would do more on their devices if WiFi was more available; 70 per cent would switch providers to get a seamless WiFi service and 90 per cent would be more likely to stay with a provider that had it. All fairly predictable.
What hasn't been shared from the survey (and we can assume questions were asked) is just how important costs and related issues such as flat rate charging are to those users who express WiFi enthusiasm. While 72 per cent (quite a bit lower than the headline numbers) said they would pay more for WiFi (such a "grooming" salesman's question), I'm betting they're imagining a minor impost on top of their current bills of around 3 extra pounds, euros or dollars a month. And furthermore many of the 83 per cent who expect to do more on a seamlessly-enabled WiFi service, for instance, must surely be anticipating very low to non-existent incremental costs - just as they enjoy on their 'free' hotspots at the coffee shop or on their unlimited or high-capped home broadband. They don't expect to be anxious about usage charges, in other words,
So this exposes the big issue: to what extent can carriers sell a 'seamless' WiFi Passport service as a "WiFi joins cellular at close to cellular pricing" kind of effort? How much do they risk it being perceived as the inverse - basic, commodity access being marked up and sold on at a premium beside macro cell access. Will customers resist being 'seamlessly' transfered from cell to WiFi without a commensurate cost break? And if they do want a cost break - how much?
The fact that carriers are keeping their pricing plans close to their chests (for services that will begin launching this year) probably means that this question has yet to be fully answered. Expect some very cunning and complex data bundles when the services arrive.
See our interview on Carrier WiFi with WiFI service provider FON below.
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