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4G Mobile Broadband Could Doom Public WiFi Wireless Internet Hotspots

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014 (1:11 am) - Score 3,253

Public WiFi hotspots have become increasingly common over the past few years and now even the government’s £150m Super-Connected Cities Programme (SCCP) is seeking to boost their coverage. But is such investment becoming a waste of money and might we be about to witness the end of public wifi as we know it.

Back when 3G based Mobile Broadband services first entered the realm of consumer affordability many predicted that they would one day remove the need for public WiFi and perhaps even replace fixed line services. It hasn’t happened.. yet. Problems with weak 3G coverage (especially indoors), the lack of embedded device support, slow speeds and service restrictions (e.g. small usage allowances) meant that WiFi could continue its rapid growth unabated.

As it stands today we’re spoilt for choice and wifi access points can now be found almost anywhere. Millions of homes distribute public wifi over the BT Fon service (i.e. BT’s home broadband routers share some of their connectivity out via wifi for other customers), nearly all the airports, trains and bus stations offer some form of wireless hotspot access and the same goes for many restaurants, hotels, cafes, shops and supermarkets.

But times have changed. The latest generation of 3G and now 4G based Mobile Broadband services are considerably faster, well integrated, more flexible and their coverage looks set to reach 98% of the UK population by the end of 2017 (note: EE’s network expects to achieve this by the end of 2014). On top of that it’s now incredibly easy to turn your Smartphone’s 3G or 4G link into a WiFi hotspot for your laptop (tethering) or tablet computer.

A report from EE last year even claimed that 43% of its customers admitted to using less public WiFi after signing up to their 4G service and we can believe it, especially with average download speeds in some areas reaching 24-30Mbps. The result is that public wifi is fast become less useful for quick pops of Internet connectivity, which is what most of us use it for, and the situation is only exasperated by some of the technologies well documented bugbears.

The Top Problems of Public WiFi

* Fiddly Signup Forms.
Perhaps one of the historically most annoying problems with public wifi, at least most of the hotspots that you tend to find in cafes and shops, is that before being able to surf the Internet you first have to fill in a sign-up form. Naturally not everybody likes giving out their personal details to a commercial company, especially if it results in more email or postal spam.

But the real problem is with the way that this can make it incredibly fiddly to get online when trying to access the service from a Smartphone. It wouldn’t be half as bad if all hotspot operators took Smartphone users into account and made their website forms more accommodating but many still don’t.

* Security.
It’s still fundamentally difficult to be 100% sure whether the wifi hotspot you’re connecting to is legitimate and secure or a fake service that’s simply been setup with a false SSID (hackers then use this to steal your data). In other cases we’ve seen Hotspots get hijacked, with traffic being pushed over some form of hacker controlled DNS connection that logs your activity and key presses.

* Expensive Hotel Services etc.
Why oh why do some UK hotels still charge for wifi? In a world where mobile broadband has become common you would have thought that hotels might consider wifi to be much like the complimentary tea or coffee, which is usually included by default. In the last year we’ve stayed in 8 different hotels and all had wifi, though half of those charged for it. In most cases we simply used our mobile connectivity instead.

* Performance (Service Speed).
Hotspots use to be billed as being “premium” services that were better than Mobile Broadband but the gap has narrowed, especially in urban areas where you often get a better connection via Mobile Broadband (particularly if it’s a 4G service). Public wifi performance can also be incredibly slow, especially if you connect to one of the inferior BT Fon based hotspots or the service is being shared between many other users (we’ve found hotel wifi to be a particularly mixed bag).

* Sporadic Coverage.
Public WiFi is by nature a service that only provides coverage within a very limit area, outside of which you’re either left with zero coverage or have to pick another hotspot. This issue can be especially problematic on moving trains, planes, taxis and buses where the included wifi (if available) often goes through patches of slow or generally poor connectivity, although Mobile Broadband suffers from similar issues.

But it’s not all bad news because the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) are already working with operators to deploy Next Generation Hotspots (NGH), which are more secure and easier to connect to than traditional hotspots (i.e. fewer of those annoying sign-up forms). However this improvement, while welcome, is a late edition and might not arrive in time to stop the expected decline.

Similarly most public wifi hotspots tend to offer free access, which can make them more attractive to use than Mobile Broadband. On the other hand many of us are such infrequent public wifi users and have enough data on our mobile allowances that it’s often easier and more secure to simply go online via 3G or 4G instead of wifi.

Meanwhile Mobile Network Operators (MNO) are also making use of wifi to off-load capacity on to fixed line networks and away from 3G/4G, where data is more expensive to deliver. But this might not last as superfast fixed line availability improves and Mobile Broadband consumers steadily become less interested in using WiFi for Internet access.

In the end the higher expectations for 4G and future 5G based Mobile Broadband services, which are already starting to deliver good usage allowances and better speeds at a more affordable price, might eventually make wifi hotspots seem largely irrelevant. CCS Insight has similarly predicted that public wi-fi usage in the UK will peak in 2015 before becoming “less relevant” in the face of growing 4G uptake.

At the same time 4G’s ever increasing speed, flexibility and the future possibility of more attractive pricing could also see the service begin to eat away at fixed line ISPs. At least it might at the lower end where consumers only make moderate use of their Internet connections and could thus save money on the hefty cost of line rental.

Admittedly WiFi hotspots currently still have a purpose and many continue to see a future for them alongside small cell and femtocell technologies, albeit as a compliment rather than a rival to mobile. Never the less it’s now possible to envisage a point where UK consumers simply won’t see much purpose in enabling their wifi link outside of a home environment and once that happens it can be hard to turn back the clock.

NOTE: Readers should not confuse public wifi with Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) broadband connectivity. The latter of which is a different kettle of fish, usually requiring the installation of a special antenna on your home or office, and much more akin to fixed line services.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he is also the founder of ISPreview since 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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9 Responses
  1. sam

    once we get get 4g broadband with a data allowance of say 100gb for £25 or less virgin and bt could be in quite a lot of trouble.

  2. John H

    As a regular visitor to North Norfolk I cannot use my mobile wifi device on EE as other is only a 2G service.
    It seems that 4G in cities is more important than improving the service in rural areas.
    I can, just, get a phone signal on Vodafone and on O2

    • gerarda

      Is there any technical reason to connect the roll out of 4G with declining 2G and 3G services in rural areas, or is it just lack of maintenance of the existing infrastructure by, in my case, Vodafone. I have just moved from them to O2 in the hope of an improvement.

  3. Interesting article, though there is also a counter view where “public” wifi becomes so ubiquitous (at a sufficient level of service) that mobile devices can use that for most things and rarely need to “roam” onto mobile networks.

    Even with 4G, and added spectrum, the data carrying capacity of mobile networks will always be a small fraction of that of fixed networks. This requires mobile operators to deploy ever larger numbers of cells with ever smaller coverage per cell. More cells means more investment and higher on-going operating costs. All of which has to be paid for by the punters using the service.

    Be interesting to see if there are any people out there already using out-of-contract smartphones without any sort of mobile contract, instead relying solely on wifi coverage for data/internet usage coupled with a cheap VoIP account for sending and receiving calls. If this solution becomes sufficiently viable for sufficient numbers of people then it could start to pose a real challenge to the mighty mobile operators.

  4. dragoneast

    I think the “free” “public” wi-fi hotspot operators may have scored an own goal with their reliance on using the service for marketing and commercial tracking of users. I can’t understand the logic and inconvenience of registering with multiple hotspots compared to an always on data connection where there is coverage, provided the price, data allowance and speeds are reasonable for a mobile. And let’s face it, whether mobile or wi-fi you make your money where the people are, not in the middle of no-where.

    • I take your point, though I mainly use just two and that gets me sorted most of the time. The two are BT (as I am a BT customer at home) and The Cloud. Alos, in some pubs I go to fairly regularly I just set up the ssid/password details and it then just works.

  5. zemadeiran

    Ready?

    How about back hauling wifi with 4G? BAM!

    Winning….

  6. AlexAtkinUK

    Another problem with public WiFi is that they do not use any encryption, in order to make it easier to connect.

    The problem with this is that 802.11n only works with WPA2 enabled, an unencrypted WiFi network is stuck with 802.11g which is far less efficient.

    If you randomly generated a new WiFi password every day it would even slightly improve security, as at least your traffic wouldn’t be going in the clear over the air. Someone would actually have to make an effort to steal your data, whereas right now if you login to any sites without SSL that information is readily available over the air waves for anyone nearby to sniff out.

    Public WiFi can still have its place, but it needs a rethink to make it more useful and secure. I certainly don’t see 4G replacing it any time soon anyway as you don’t want to watch Netflix or video chat on Skype over 4G unless you have an unlimited data tariff – which not everyone can afford.

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