Telco 2.0™ Research

The Future Of Telecoms And How To Get There

Public Wifi: Destroying LTE/Mobile Value?

Summary: By building or acquiring Public WiFi networks for tens of $Ms, highly innovative fixed players in the UK are stealthily removing $Bns of value from 3G and 4G mobile spectrum as smartphone and other data devices become increasingly carrier agnostic. What are the lessons globally?

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Two recent announcements have reignited interest in the UK Public WiFi space: Sky buying The Cloud for a reputed figure just short of £50m and Virgin Media announcing their intention to invest in building a metro WiFi network based around their significant outdoor real estate in the major conurbations.

These can be seen narrowly as competitive reactions to the success of the BT Openzone public WiFi product, which is a clear differentiator for the BT home broadband offer in the eyes of the consumer. The recent resurgence of BT market share in the home broadband market hints that public WiFi is an ingredient valued by consumers, especially when the price is bundled into the home access charges and therefore perceived as “free” by the consumer.

This trend is being accelerated by the new generation of Smartphones sensing whether private and public WiFi access or mobile operator network access offer the best connection for the end-user and then making the authentication process much easier. Furthermore, the case of the mobile operators is not helped by laptops and more importantly tablets and other connected devices such as e-readers offering WiFi as a default means of access with mobile operator 3G requiring extra investment in both equipment and access with a clumsy means of authentication.

In a wider context, the phenomena should be extremely concerning for the UK mobile operators. There has been a two decade trend of voice traffic inside the home moving from fixed to mobile networks with a clear revenue gain for the mobile operators. In the data world, it appears that the bulk of the heavy lifting appears to being served within the home by private WiFi and outside of the home in nomadic spots served by public WiFi.

With most of the public WiFi hotspots in the UK being offered by fixed operators, there is a potential value shift from mobile to fixed networks reversing that two decade trend. As the hotspots grow and critically, once they become interconnected, there is an increasing risk to mobile operators in terms of the value of investment in expensive ‘4G’ / LTE spectrum.

Beyond this, a major problem for mobile operators is that the current trend for multi-mode networking (i.e. combination of WiFi and 3G access) limits the ability of operators to provide VAS services and/or capture 2-sided business model revenues, since so much activity is off-network and outside of the operator’s control plane.

The history of WiFi presents reality lessons for Mobile Operators, namely:

  • With Innovation, it not always the innovators who gain the most;
  • Similarly, with Standards setting, it not always the people who set the standards who gain the most; and
  • WiFi is a classic case of Apple driving mass adoption and reaping the benefits - to this day, Apple still seems to prefer WiFi over 3G.

This analyst note explains the flurry of recent announcements in the context of:

  • The unique UK market structure;
  • Technology Adoption Cycles;
  • How intelligence at the edge of the network will drive both private and public WiFi use;
  • How public WiFi in the UK might evolve;
  • The longer term value threat to the mobile operators;
  • How O2 and Vodafone are taking different strategies to fight back; and
  • Lessons for other markets.

Unique Nature of the UK Market Structure

In May 2002, BT Cellnet, the mobile arm of BT, soon to be renamed O2, demerged from BT leaving the UK market as one of few markets in the world where the incumbent PTT did not have a mobile arm. Ever since BT has tried to get into the mobility game with varying degrees of success:

  • In the summer of 2002, it launched its public WiFi service called OpenZone;
  • In September 2003 it announced plans for WiFi in all public phone boxes ;
  • In May 2004, it launched an MVNO with Vodafone with plans for the doomed BT Fusion UMA (Bluetooth then WiFi ) phone;
  • In May 2006, with Metro WiFi plans in partnership with local authorities in 12 cities; and
  • In Oct 2007, in partnership with FON to put public WiFi in each and every BT home routers.

After trying out different angles in the mobility business for five years, BT finally discovered a workable business model with public WiFi around the FON partnership. BT now effectively bundle free public WiFi to its broadband users in return for establishing a public hotspot within their own home.

Huge Growth in UK Public Wifi Usage

Approximately 2.6m or 47% customers of a total of 5.5m BT broadband connections have taken this option. This creates the image of huge public WiFi coverage and clearly currently differentiates BT from other home broadband providers. And, the public WiFi network is being used much more: 881 million minutes in the current quarter compared to 335 million minutes in the previous year.

The other significant element of the BT public WiFi network is the public hotspots they have built with hotels, restaurants, airports. The hotspots number around 5k, of which 1.2k are wholesale arrangements with other public WiFi hotspot providers. While not significant in number, these provide the real incremental value to the BT home broadband user who can connect for “free” in these high traffic locations.

BT was not alone in trying to build a public WiFi business. The Cloud was launched in the UK in 2003 and tried to build a more traditional public WiFi business building upon a combination of direct end user revenues and wholesale and interconnect arrangements. That Sky are paying “south of £50m” for The Cloud compared to the “€50m invested” over the years by the VC backers implies the traditional public WiFi business model just doesn’t work. A different strategy will be taken by Sky going forward.

Sky is the largest pay-tv provider in the UK currently serving approximately 10m homes by satellite DTH. In 2005, Sky decided upon a change of strategy and decided that in addition to offering its customers video services, they needed to offer broadband and phone services. Sky has subsequently invested approximately £1bn in buying an altnet, Easynet, for £211m, in building a LLU network on top of BT infrastructure and acquiring 3m broadband customers. If the past is anything to go by, Sky will be planning on investing considerable further sums in The Cloud to make it at a minimum a comparable service to BT Openzone for its customers.

Virgin Media is the only cable operator of any significance in the UK with a footprint of around 50% of the UK mainly in the dense conurbations. Virgin Media is the child of many years of cable consolidation and historically suffered from disparate metro cable networks of varying quality and an overleveraged balance sheet. The present management has a done a good job of tidying up the mess and upgrading the networks to DOCSIS 3.0 technology. In the last year, Virgin Media has started to expand its footprint again and investing in new products with plans for building a metro WiFi network based around its large footprint of cabinets in the street.

Virgin Media has a large base of 4.3m home broadband users to protect and an even larger base of potential homes to sell services into. In addition, Virgin Media is the largest MVNO in the UK with around 3m mobile subscribers. In recent years, Virgin Media have focused upon selling mobile services into their current cable customers. Although, Virgin Media’s public WiFi strategy is not in the public domain, it is clear that they plan on investing in 2011.

TalkTalk is the only other significant UK Home Broadband player with 4.2m home broadband users and currently has no declared public WiFi strategies.

The mobile operators which have invested in broadband, namely O2 and Orange, have failed to gain traction in the marketplace.

The key trend here is that the fixed broadband network providers are moving outside of the home and providing more value to their customers on the move.

Technology Adoption Cycles

Figure 1: Geoffrey Moore’s Technology Adoption Cycle


Geoffrey Moore documented technology adoption cycles, originally in the “Crossing the Chasm” book and subsequently in the “Living in the Fault Line” book. These books described the pain in products crossing over from early adopters to the mass market. Since publication, they have established themselves as the bible for a generation of Technology marketers. Moore distinguishes six zones, which are adopted to describe the situation of public WiFi in the UK.

  1. The early market: a time of great excitement when visionaries are looking to get on board. In the public WiFi market this period was clearly established in mid-2005 era when public WiFi networks where promoted as real alternatives to private MNOs.
  2. The chasm: a time of great despair as initial interest wanes and the mainstream is not comfortable with adoption. The UK WiFi market has been stagnating for the previous few years as investment in public WiFi has declined and customer adoption has not accelerated beyond the techno-savvy.
  3. The bowling alley: a period of niche adoption ahead of the general marketplace. The UK market is currently in this period. The two key skittles to fall were the BT FON deal changing the public WiFi business model, and the launch of the iPhone with auto-sensing and easy authentication of public WiFi.
  4. The tornado: a period of mass-market adoption. The UK market is about to enter in this phase as public WiFi investment is reinvigorated deploying providing “bundled” access to most home broadband users.
  5. Main street: Base infrastructure has been deployed and the goal is to flesh out the potential. We are probably a few years away from this and this phase will focus on ease-of-use, interconnect of public WiFi networks, consolidation of smaller players and alternate revenue sources such as advertising.
  6. Total Assimilation: Everyone is using the technology and the market is ripe for another wave of disruption. For UK WiFi, this is probably at least a decade away, but who know what the future holds?

Flashback: How Private WiFi crossed the Chasm

It is worthwhile at this point to revisit the history of WiFi as it provides some perspective and pointers for the future, especially who the winners and losers will be in the public WiFi space.

Back in 1985 when deregulation was still in fashion, the USA FCC opened up some spectrum to provide an innovation spurt to US industry under a license exempt and “free-to-use” regime. This was remarkable in itself given that previously spectrum, whether for radio and television broadcasting or public and private communications, had been exclusively licensed. Any applications in the so-called ISM (Industrial, Scientific and Medical) bands would have to deal with contention from other applications using the spectrum and therefore the primary use was seen as indoor and corporate applications.

Retail department stores, one of the main clients of NCR (National Cash Registers), tended to reconfigure their floor space on a regular basis and the cost of continual rewiring of point-of-sales equipment was a significant expense. NCR saw an opportunity to use the ISM bands to solve this problem and started a R&D project in the Netherlands to create wireless local area networks which required no cabling.

At this time, the IEEE were leading the standardization effort for local area networks and the 802.3 Ethernet specification initially approved in 1987 still forms the basis of the most wired LAN implementations today. NCR decided that the standards road was the route to take and played a leading role in the eventual creation of 802.11 wireless LAN standards in 1997. Wireless LAN was considered too much of a mouthful and was reinvented as WiFi in 1999 with the help of a branding agency.

Ahead of the standards approval, NCR launched products under the WaveLAN brand in 1990 but the cost of the plug-in cards at US$1,400 were very expensive compared to the wired ethernet cards which were priced at around US$400. Product take-up was slow outside of early adopters.

In 1991 an early form of Telco-IT convergence emerged as AT&T bought NCR. An early competitor for the ISM bandwidth emerged with AT&T developing a new generation of digital cordless phones using the 2.4GHz band. To this day, in the majority of UK and worldwide households, DECT handsets in the home compete with WiFi for spectrum. Product development of the cards continued and was made consumer friendly easier with the adoption on the PCMIA card slots in PCs.

By 1997, WiFi technology was firmly stuck in the chasm. The major card vendors (Proxim, Aironet, Xircom and AT&T) all had non-standardized products and the vendors were at best marginally profitable struggling to grow the market.
AT&T had broken up and the WiFi business became part of Lucent Technologies. The eyes and brains of the big communications companies (Alcatel, Ericsson, Lucent, Motorola, Nokia, Nortel and Siemens) were focused on network solutions with 3G holding the promise for the future. 

All that was about to change in early 1998 with a meeting between Steve Jobs of Apple and Richard McGinn, CEO of Lucent:

  • Steve Jobs declared “Wireless LANs are the greatest thing on earth, Apple wants a radio card for US$50, which Apple will retail at US$99”;
  • Rich McGinn declared 1999 to be the year of DSL and asked if Apple would be ready; and
  • Steve Jobs retort was revealing to this day “Probably not next, maybe the year after; depends upon whether there is one standard worldwide”.

Figure 2: The Apple Airport

In early 1998 the cost of the cards was still above US$100 and needed a new generation of chips to bring the cost down to the Apple price point. Further, Apple wanted to use the 11Mbit/s standard which had just been developed rather than the current 2Mbit/s. However, despite the challenges the product was launched in July 1999 as the Apple Airport with the PCMCIA card at US$99 and the access point at US$299. Apple was the first skittle to fall as private WiFi crossed the chasm. The Windows based OEMs rushed to follow.

By 2001, Lucent had spun out its chip making arm as Agere Systems which had a market share of 50% of a US$1bn WiFi market, which would have been nothing but a pin prick on either the AT&T or Lucent profit and loss had Agere remained as part of them.

The final piece in the WiFi jigsaw fell into place when Intel acquired Xircom in 1999 and developed the Xircom technology and used their WiFi patents as protection against competitors. In 2003, Intel launched its Centrino chipset with built in WiFi functionality for laptops supported by a US$300m worldwide marketing campaign. Effectively for the consumer WiFi had become part the laptop bundle.

Agere Systems and all its WiFi heritage was finished and they discontinued its WiFi activities in 2004.

There are three clear pointers for the future:

  • The players who take a leading role in the early market will not necessary be the ones to succeed in Main Street;
  • Apple took a leading role in the adoption of WiFi and still seems massively committed to WiFi technology to this day;
  • Technology adoption cycles tend to be longer than expected.

Intelligence at the edge of the Network

As early as 2003, Broadcom and Phillips were launching specialized WiFi chips aimed at mobile phones. Several cellular handsets were launched with WiFi combined with 2G/3G connectivity, but the connectivity software was clunky for the user.

The launch of the iPhone in 2007 began a new era where the device automatically attempts to connect to any WiFi network if the signal strength is better than the 2G/3G network. The era of the home or work WiFi network being the preferred route for data traffic was ushered in.

Apple is trying to make authentication as simple as possible: enter the key for any WiFi network once and it will be remembered for the handset’s lifetime and connect automatically when a user returns in range. However, in dense urban networks with multiple WiFi access points, it is quite annoying to be prompted for key after key. The strength of the federated authentication system in cellular networks is therefore still a critical advantage.

The iPhone also senses that some applications can only be used when WiFi connections are available. The classic example is Apple’s own Facetime (video calling) application. Mobile Operators seem happy in the short run that bandwidth intensive applications are kept off their networks. But, there is a longer term value statement with the users being continually being reminded that WiFi networks are superior to mobile operators’ networks.

Other mobile operating systems, such as Android and Windows Phone 7, have copied the Apple approach and today there is no going back: multi-modal mobile phones are here to stay and the devices themselves decide which network to use unless the user over-rides this choice.

One of underlying rules of the internet is that intelligence moves to the edge of the network. The edges are probably in the eyes of Apple and Google the handsets and their server farms. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that future Smartphones will be supplied with automatic authentication for both WiFi and Cellular networks with least-cost routing software determining the best price for the user. As intelligence moves to the edge so does value.

Public WiFi Hotspots – the Business Model challenges

The JiWire directory estimates that there are c. 414k public WiFi locations across the globe at the end of 2010, and there are WiFi hotspots currently located 26.5k in the UK. Across the globe, there is a shift from a paid-for model to a free-model with the USA being top of the free chart with 54% of public WiFi locations being free.

For a café chain offering free access to WiFi is a good model to follow. The theory is that people will make extra visits to buy a coffee just to check their email or some other light internet visit. Starbucks started the trend by offering free WiFi access, all the rest felt compelled to follow. Nowadays, all the major chains whether Costa Coffee, Café Nero and even McDonalds offer free WiFi access provided by either BT Openzone or Sky’s The Cloud. A partnership with a public WiFi provider is perfect as the café chain doesn’t have to provide complicated networking support or regulatory compliance. The costs for the public WiFi provider are relativity small especially if they are amortized across a large base of broadband users.

For hotels and resorts, the business case is more difficult as most hotels are quite large and multiple access points are required to provide decent coverage to all rooms. Furthermore, hotels traditionally have made additional revenues from most services and therefore complexity is added with billing systems. For most hotels and resorts a revenue share agreement is negotiated with the WiFi service provider.

For public places, such as airports and train stations, the business case is also complicated by the owners knowing these sites are high in footfall and therefore demand a premium for any activity whether retail or service based. It is a similar problem that mobile operators face when trying to provide coverage in major locations: access to prime locations is expensive. In the UK, the entry of Sky into the public WiFi and its long association with Sports brings an intriguing possible partnership with the UK’s major venues.

These three types of locations currently account for 75% of current public WiFi usage according to JiWire.

To read the rest of the article, including:

  • How will UK Public WiFi Evolve?
  • Challenge to Mobile Operators
  • O2 Tries an Alternative
  • Vodafone Goes with Femtos
  • Lessons for Other Markets

...Members of the Telco 2.0TM Executive Briefing Subscription Service and Future Networks Stream can access and download a PDF of the full report here. Non-Members, please see here for how to subscribe. Alternatively, please email or call +44 (0) 207 247 5003 for further details. 'Growing the Mobile Internet' and 'Lessons from Apple: Fostering vibrant content ecosystems' are also featured at our AMERICAS and EMEA Executive Brainstorms and Best Practice Live! virtual events.