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Mobile users might turn to WiFi to avoid extortionate 3G roaming charges

The WiFi renaissance is nearly upon us
Wed Jul 13 2011, 17:38

WIFI NETWORK GATEKEEPER Ipass expects to see mobile WiFi use grow, with prices tumbling.

Ipass, the firm that handles authentication for WiFi hotspots run by some of the largest mobile operators around including AT&T, Deutsche Telekom and Orange, is claiming that as mobile users' thirst for bandwidth grows, WiFi will be increasingly important, especially with roaming data. Barbara Nelson, CTO of Ipass told The INQUIRER that "increasing use will push down the price of WiFi".

On the issue of data roaming, a refreshingly frank Nelson said, "3G roaming is giving users a negative experience," and that some users might even consider moving to another mobile operator when they land in a foreign country only to receive a text message highlighting roaming data costs. Nelson said that mobile operators want to charge for WiFi access in a similar way as 3G, meaning that WiFi access will move towards per megabyte billing rather than the hourly billing that is commonly seen today.

Nelson said that the biggest problem wasn't getting mobile operators to sign up but rather making the WiFi offload - the hand over from 3G networks to WiFi networks - completely automatic. Nelson claimed that only one to two per cent of users would switch to a WiFi network if they had to manually make the choice, whereas if it were automatic, the firm's research has shown that around 20 to 30 per cent of users jump onto the WiFi network.

Interestingly, once mobile operators realised they were losing out on free customers, they were keen to consider WiFi roaming, said Nelson. Asked whether mobile operators would run closed networks of WiFi hotspots where only subscribers of certain mobile operators would be allowed to connect, resulting in WiFi islands, Nelson said, "Networks need to open up for money."

Nelson said that opening up WiFi access will give mobile operators "free traffic", which results in "easy money for the networks" adding that mobile operators did not have to spend anything to get hold of these customers.

With the introduction of a per megabyte WiFi billing model, there is a concern that while WiFi might provide the bandwidth, it will limit people's ability to do tasks such as stream video due to cost constraints. Nelson said that most WiFi hotspots, even ones that are partnered with mobile operators, will be free to use, but ones that charge will have to increase the quality of their backhaul.

Given that Ipass regulates access to somewhere in the region of 500,000 hotspots, just how low did Nelson believe WiFi data roaming charges will be in the future? She said that WiFi roaming will definitely be cheaper than 3G, though that's no surprise, but added that she expects WiFi roaming charges to be on the order of five cents/MB.

Nelson said one thing that could help keep prices down is the fact that there could be multiple providers in a single location and that competition between WiFi networks represented by Ipass will not only lead to lower prices but also better performance.

There's no doubt that 3G roaming charges are absolutely disgraceful and if, as Nelson's claims visualise, WiFi will become abundant, then even by charging per megabyte, WiFi could well oust 3G as the data connectivity method of choice in the future. µ


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