WLAN: The Next Dot-Com Crash?

Forrester thinks public WLAN hotspot businesses will fail, as Bluetooth-capable devices will outnumber WLAN devices by four times in 2008

June 20, 2003

3 Min Read

AMSTERDAM -- A new brief by Forrester Research B.V. (Nasdaq: FORR), forecasts that there will be 286 million Bluetooth-enabled phones, laptops, and PDAs in Europe in 2008 compared with 53 million WLAN devices -- mostly laptops. But Bluetooth and WLAN are complementary technologies that rarely compete. Significantly, and contrary to today's vendor and operator noise, public WLAN hotspot business cases will largely fail -- as they’ll only serve a paltry 7.7 million users in 2008.

"With all the hype today about the rollout of WLAN public hotspots, it's as if the dot-com boom and bust never happened," said Forrester Senior Analyst Lars Godell. "We believe that much of the money being poured into public WLAN today to enable access -- from places as diverse as bars, marinas, hotels, and airports, as well as train, bus, and metro stations -- is being wasted. Simply, basic constraints on the number of devices in use and users' willingness to pay a significant amount for Internet access on the go will limit public WLAN users to numbers well short of planned networks' carrying capacity. Additionally, the sky-high costs of providing Internet backhaul from hotspots will kill many hotspot business cases."

Forrester's argument is simple: For the success of public hotspots, laptops are the killer device for WLAN, but only 10 percent of Europeans own a laptop today, and the research firm expects that only 16 percent will in 2008. With all-you-can-eat prices at up to 130 euros per month, spotty hotspot coverage, unresolved national and international roaming issues, and corporate IT persistently worried about WLAN security and standards fragmentation, the hotspot market has a long way to go before takeoff. And 80 percent of WLAN gear shipped so far has gone into the small office/home office market, not the enterprise market.

Forrester anticipates that only 7.7 million Europeans (20 percent and 15 percent of WLAN-enabled PDA and laptop owners, respectively) will be public hotspot users in 2008. Compare that with the 312 million mobile phone users Forrester expects in that year and the hotspot bubble seems ready to burst. When corporates eventually buy into WLAN for enterprisewide use, WLAN will mostly be used within a LAN setting with fat WAN fiber pipes back to the Internet -- or other private hotspots, such as in homes. In 2008, Forrester estimates that 57 percent of WLAN-enabled laptop owners will use private hotspots exclusively. Finally, not all laptop and PDA owners will care enough to use the WLAN feature; in 2008, 28 percent of WLAN-enabled laptop owners will not use the technology at all.

"Penetration of Bluetooth in phones will rise from 26 million handsets this year to 239 million in 2008," Godell added. "Realistically, WLAN will only creep into 2 percent of phones as part of a dual-mode chip solution in high-end hybrid devices like the Nokia Communicator and Sony Ericsson P800. Powerful mobile operators will convince handset makers not to contribute toward the killing of one of their overpriced cash cows -- mobile voice -- through enabling free or very cheap Wi-Fi calls. WLAN will increasingly show up in laptops, reaching 22 percent this year and 80 percent in 2008, as corporate deployments renew demand once security bugs have been fixed. While 66 percent of laptops will have Bluetooth in 2008, 65 percent will be dual-mode. Finally, six out of 10 PDAs get Bluetooth -- twice as many as get WLAN."

Forrester Research Inc.

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