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Should Wi-Fi Be a Free-for-All?

As operators devise new strategies for Wi-Fi access, they have divergent views on whether the service should be free and open to everyone.

Two examples of service providers with differing views on free Wi-Fi access are Telefónica UK Ltd. (O2) in the U.K. and eir in Ireland.

In the U.K., O2 has recently built out its own Wi-Fi network that covers 1,000 locations and comprises 7,000 access points, explained Gavin Franks, managing director of O2 Wi-Fi, during a presentation at Light Reading's Strategic Opportunities in Service Provider Wi-Fi conference. By the end of June, the operator plans to expand the network to 3,000 locations.

Access to O2's hot spots is open and free not only for its own subscribers but also for customers on any other mobile network in the U.K.

"We didn't see any reason to build a billing system around it," said Franks, who explained that O2's venue partners want Wi-Fi services that everyone can use, while O2 wants to further its brand by attracting everyone to use its services, a move that, if the customer experience is positive, could attract new customers for paid services.

In contrast, Eircom has a slightly different approach. The operator has also recently relaunched its own Wi-Fi hot spot network, called WiFiHub, but it offers free access only to its existing fixed broadband and mobile customers. Subscribers to other mobile operators can have 10 minutes of free access, after which there is a charge to use the service.

"Free or not free, that's the question," said John Bermingham, senior product manager at Eircom, who also spoke at the conference. "We're not quite there yet," he added, admitting that potential retail and venue partners were struggling with the concept of offering a service that was free for some but not for all.

Bermingham also talked to Light Reading Mobile about Eircom's Wi-Fi service strategy in the following video interview:

For Eircom, the business case for its new Wi-Fi service rests on customer retention, subscriber acquisition and adding revenue. After the first six months of running the service, Bermingham said, "the needle hasn't moved much" on revenue, but there has been a big impact on customer retention.

Ultimately, Bermingham said the goal is to have handover between its cellular 3G and Wi-Fi networks, so "customers don't even know they're using it. We don’t want to have to tell customers anything. ... They'll just benefit from the service."

— Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Light Reading Mobile

AESerm 12/5/2012 | 5:35:04 PM
re: Should Wi-Fi Be a Free-for-All?

Interesting: Two roads diverge here. So on the free side, maybe O2's venue partners kick in something for the privilege of having happy customers at their hotspot? Without setting up a billing system, they could have maybe gone with an authentication system, or is that a distinction without too much difference? So for Eircom, it also comes down to network traffic and architecture, if they're ultimately looking for that Wi-Fi/3G handoff. 

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