“There is something of a meeting of minds, or at least of objectives, in the UK today. Local authorities need to deliver services and improve access. Consumers like wifi when they can get it and operators need small cells. Common goals are often easier to achieve,” says Oliver Johnson, Chief Executive at Point Topic.
WiFi offers solutions to local authorities and residential and business consumers in terms of accessibility as well as helping to address coverage and adoption issues but another, perhaps killer, application is moving to the fore as small cells are becoming a real possibility throughout the country. That has piqued the interest of mobile operators.
A recent study published by the European Commission has highlighted the importance of WiFi for European consumers and recommends that extra spectrum should be made available across Europe to support this rising demand. Over 70 per cent of mobile initiated traffic is being handed off immediately via wifi to a fixed line and that proportion is growing according to the report.
While in the UK, the Super-Connected Cities Programme (SCCP) identifies wireless connectivity as a key ambition, and has led to a flurry of recent activity in wireless concessions.
Now it seems there is a mechanism to deploy small cells using existing technology as well as the drive to do so. As the UK tries to provide as much broadband for as many people as it can the local authorities now have another business model to play with that could improve access for consumers and businesses. WiFi can be monetised at least in principle and that attracts the suppliers.
“Local conditions will need local solutions and there’s no one template, yet, that maps the path to available and sustainable wifi. However it should be possible. With a combination of access charges, advertising, sponsorship and subsidy there is a pot of revenue waiting for those that get the mix right,” says Johnson.
There is a complex maze left to negotiate. There are only the beginnings of business cases but there are enough deployments now with Birmingham, Leeds, Bradford and Bristol amongst others that meaningful data can be gathered and alternative approaches assessed.
It is likely there’ll be more complexity in the future too. The technical challenge of seamlessly transiting a user from cell to cell and technology to technology, particularly where they are provided by different operators, needs to be addressed. In addition consumers are getting used to free wifi and it remains to be seen how providers cope with the need to monetise deployments in the face of the currently unsustainable level of revenue.
“We’ve all seen any number of wifi based promises across the country the majority of which bore no meaningful fruit. The momentum has changed though. Consumer behaviour some time ago reached a tipping point where mobile access is an everyday event for many. The only thing holding most of us back is the cost and data caps of a typical mobile contract. With that barrier most likely being breached we expect to see deployments soar in the coming years,” concludes Johnson.