Worldwide Wi-Fi Use Is Growing

By Adam Stone

October 15, 2007

iPass's semi-annual Wi-Fi Hotspot Index demonstrates rapid increase in global hotspot usage.

Not only is the worldwide adoption of Wi-Fi accelerating, the pace of acceptance is growing even faster than experts had anticipated. At least part of the overall growth can be attributed to rapid acceptance in international markets.

While analysts have been looking for the Wi-Fi market to expand, the rate of growth has exceeded expectations. “What surprised me the most was not just that it is growing, but the way it is growing,” said Rick Bilodeau, senior director of marketing at iPass.

A global roaming service, iPass forms relationships with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) around the world, allowing travelers to gain Internet access in far-reaching locations. Bilodeau draws his observations from iPass’ most recent Wi-Fi Hotspot Index, a semiannual study that summarizes data collected from across iPass’ 100,000 users. It looks at more that 80,000 hotspots in over 85 countries.

The latest index covers the first half of 2007. The index show a rapidly accelerating growth rate, with the number of sessions up 68 percent in the first half of 2007, as compared to 44 percent growth in the previous half.

“We were very confident that there would be growth, but the fact that the growth showed at these levels really came as a surprise,” Bilodeau said.

The high rate of adoption likely is due to enterprise acceptance, Bilodeau said. While individuals have been using Wi-Fi for some time, corporations now are beginning to recognize the usefulness of the technology.

While the iPass index does not quantify enterprise growth, Bilodeau suggested that continued expansion in that sector should soon begin to generate a visible impact in the overall Wi-Fi marketplace. “We are hitting that tipping point where enterprises are taking Wi-Fi seriously and considering it as a serious means of access, and not just an end-user gimmick,” he said.

Part of the recent growth also can be explained by a rapid escalation in the international markets.

While many countries got off to a slower start than the U.S. in terms of Wi-Fi deployment, the tide is turning. In Europe for example, Wi-Fi usage almost doubled as compared to the previous half, while North American usage increased by a comparatively sluggish – though still explosive – 57 percent in the first half of 2007.

Still, the drop-off is steep as one moves down the list of top Wi-Fi nations. The U.S. clocks in at just over one million sessions, or single user log-in events, followed by the U.K. at 260,000 sessions. Yet the Netherlands, which ranks number five on the list of Top Ten nations, records just under 61,000 sessions.

The only Asian nation to make the Top Ten list by usage was Japan, which hardly comes as a surprise, Bilodeau said. “There is more of a culture [in Asia] around the handheld mobile data service model. When people think of wireless data they think of that first, which is why we aren’t seeing as much of the traction as we are seeing in other regions,” he said, adding that the ease and low cost of Wi-Fi rollouts could soon begin to drive higher adoption rates in that part of the world.

Where are users logging in? The usual suspects make the Top Five: cafes, restaurants, bookstores, train stations, and office-services locations. The growth in the number of sessions by venue is not extraordinary: up 11 percent in cafes, one percent in bookstores, three percent in restaurants.

The real story comes through in the length of these sessions: The typical café user logged in for 61 minutes, up 22 percent from the previous half; restaurant users chomped and surfed for 44 minutes, up 122 percent; train stations, averaged 27 minutes per user, up 139 percent; and office services (Kinko's et al) scored just over an hour, up two percent.

That all adds up, Bilodeau said. “The amount of time someone is going to spend in a given venue makes sense. An airport [session] is 40 minutes. So how long are you going to spend between flights? Forty minutes sounds about right.”

Notably absent from the iPass study are municipal and metropolitan Wi-Fi deployments. That’s because there aren’t enough to count, Bilodeau said. “The telling fact is that there aren’t a lot of them in the world right now,” he said. “The big ones we have been hoping for in Philadelphia and San Francisco and other cities just haven’t come through yet.”

While municipal rollouts in particular have been struggling, Bilodeau said the situation could turn around fast, because of the very nature of such deployments. Due to the large number of people living in large municipalities, “it doesn’t take a lot of muni usage to get you into the top five,” he said. Just a few deployments could bring in a large number of users.



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