The public WLAN hotspot market appears to have plateaued, at least for the time being. Despite some slight growth in hotspot numbers in 3Q16, the increases were nowhere near those seen in the peak years of the market from 2010 to 2013. Meanwhile, the Wi-Fi Alliance's recently presented Coexistence Test Plan, which aims to ensure that Wi-Fi and future LTE-U devices can cohabit in unlicensed spectrum, has not been universally well received.
Public Wi-Fi hotspot growth stalls
There were 7.15 million public wireless LAN hotspots in service in Asia-Pacific, North America, and Western Europe at the end of September 2016, virtually unchanged from three months earlier, but up 1.1% on the year-earlier figure of 7.07 million (see Figure 1). Asia-Pacific accounts for more than 91% of all paid-for public Wi-Fi locations in service.
Among the main developments in the market during the quarter, US cable TV and broadband provider Cablevision announced the closure of its Freewheel service, which offers customers Internet access at Wi-Fi hotspots as part of a US$9.95 monthly plan. The data-only service, which was introduced in 2015, has struggled to compete with rival operators such as Republic Wireless and Scratch Wireless, which can add cellular connectivity when out of the reach of a Wi-Fi network. Cablevision was taken over by Netherlands-based telecoms investment group Altice earlier this year.
Meanwhile, Cablevision and its partners in the CableWiFi alliance – Comcast, Bright House Networks, Time Warner Cable, and Cox Communications – have confirmed that the group will continue to share their respective hotspot networks despite a number of ownership changes. As well as the Altice purchase of Cablevision, Time Warner and Bright House have been acquired by Charter Communications. CableWiFi has around 500,000 public hotspots across the US.
Wi-Fi/LTE coexistence plans get a mixed reception
In September, the Wi-Fi Alliance delivered its Coexistence Test Plan, which aims to ensure that Wi-Fi and future LTE-U devices can cohabit in unlicensed spectrum. The plan was developed by both the Wi-Fi and LTE-U industries as a tool for vendors seeking to demonstrate that their equipment can operate without causing interference with networks using the same band. The Wi-Fi Alliance says the plan will safeguard the use of Wi-Fi networks once LTE-U technology hits the market. The Alliance's plan is not without its critics, however; the US telco Verizon has labelled the proposals "fundamentally unfair and biased," while equipment manufacturer Qualcomm says its own input has been rejected. Qualcomm and Verizon are proposing to extend LTE systems into the unlicensed 5GHz band.
The Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) has highlighted the "enormous opportunity" that Wi-Fi calling services can offer to mobile operators. The industry group says that voice-over-Wi-Fi (VoWiFi) allows cellcos to fill in gaps in their indoor network coverage, which is one of the main causes of complaints from mobile subscribers. Firms such as T-Mobile, Vodafone, Hutchison 3, Singtel, and Tele2 have already introduced VoWiFi services, with others such as Orange preparing for a launch. Separately, the WBA has unveiled its City Wi-Fi Roaming Project, which aims to offer connectivity at a number of major cities across the world, including New York, Barcelona, Dublin, Singapore, San Francisco, and San Jose.
Public WLAN Hotspots, 3Q16, TE00006-001319 (December 2016)
Julian Bright, Senior Analyst, Intelligent Networks