The delay in auctioning off 4G spectrum is creating a “land grab” as network operators tie up and lock down a growing host of Wi-Fi hotspots in order to serve data-rich content to more and more smartphone users.
The latest move comes from market leader BT Openzone, whose deal this week with the Dutch brewer Heineken will see nearly 100 London pubs Wi-Fi-enabled, followed by 200 more pubs across Britain by the end of 2012.
This pushes the number of BT-based Wi-Fi hotspots over three million, but this figure is skewed somewhat by the number of private BT Home Hubs which may or may not be available, depending on the owner’s willingness to share their bandwidth with the public.
Next is satellite TV broadcaster and increasingly versatile network operator BSkyB, which acquired just over 4,000 hotspots when it purchased The Cloud in January. Since then, Sky spokesman Stephen Gaynor told Mobile, it has added Virgin Active gyms, Pizza Express outlets and Nintendo DS3 owners, pushing its hotspots over the 5,000 mark.
Gaynor said Sky is now pitching Wi-Fi capability to the thousands of pubs and clubs that already take a public Sky TV subscription. Sky is offering Wi-Fi capability free to pub and club landlords, who must decide for themselves whether to charge for Wi-Fi access.
Meanwhile, mobile network operator O2, which announced in January it would build its own national Wi-Fi network that would be free to the public, has completed the initial rollout to its 450 retail stores.
An O2 spokesman said the MNO is now signing up partners with the aim of expanding its Wi-Fi footprint and improving its capacity to exploit Near Field Communications (NFC) for payments and other services.
The names of the first partners will be announced in September, she said.
The reason for the land grab is the growing amount of data traffic on mobile networks. Sky’s Gaynor said the take-up of Sky’s free Go service, which delivers Sky TV and broadband to subscribers’ smartphones, has been 'pleasing'.
'If you were already a subscriber, why wouldn’t you,' he said. 'I think we all know that 3G isn’t very reliable for delivering such content.'
Not to mention expensive, thanks to high data tariffs and volume caps.
Wi-Fi, which is free to air, works over much shorter distances than mobile, and depends on nearby fixed networks to send and receive data. Typical Wi-Fi transmission rates are up to 54Mbps, compared to mobile rates that are lucky to be one-tenth as fast.
With the London Olympics less than a year away, network operators of all types are keen to lay the foundations now for what is likely, in the absence of high speed 4G bandwidth, to be a convenient, even irresistible, lure for customers.