Lately I have been asked a number of times if there is a business case to be made for providing a large outdoor WiFi hotspot network. Today I will look at the two issues that answer that question: 1) the hardware available today and; 2) the revenue opportunities.
Hardware Issues. The WiFi industry is currently in a state of what I call ‘between’. This often happens when a new standard is being introduced. There have been existing hotspots on the market for many years. But the whole industry is moving towards implementing Hotspot 2.0, which is a standard that allows for roaming between hotspots the same way that cellphones roam between cell towers. But since the coverage distance of a hotspot is far less – around 250 feet at most from a hotspot – roaming is even more of an issue for WiFi.
With Hotspot 2.0 fully implemented, a customer can automatically log in when walking within range of a hotspot. But more importantly they will maintain whatever they are doing (such as a web session or IP phone call) without interruption as they move to a new hotspot (as long as they don’t hit a dead area). But the units on the market today can best be characterized as pre-Hotspot 2.0 and they do not yet include all of the features needed to fully support roaming. This means any units you buy today are going to need an upgrade eventually to a standard that is not yet fully defined.
The units on the market today are also very expensive compared to older hotspots. The manufacturers are concentrating on high-capacity hotspots that can handle as many as 500 simultaneous users. These are complicated hotspots with multiple antennae and cost as much as ten times as the old simple hotspots. But these are what are selling and they are made for stadiums, event centers, busy shopping districts or places where there will to be a lot people. But a citywide deployment doesn’t need many hotspots with that huge capacity, but rather much cheaper and lower capacity units that also do Hotspot 2.0.
Revenue Opportunities. The revenue opportunities for an outdoor WiFi network are not clear. I don’t know of any hotspot networks that have been able to pay for themselves. But there may be new revenue opportunities coming that could improve the picture.
There are two traditional WiFi revenue opportunities. One is to sell access to the WiFi network by the hour, by the day or by the month – traditional ISP services. There are customers in any town who would prefer WiFi to more expensive cellular data if you can create good enough coverage. You can sell this to individuals or in bulk to large employers in a town that have employees who work outside. The other traditional revenue opportunity it to sell dedicated hotspots to restaurants and other businesses that want to offer a branded hotspot for their customers. This will require that you (or somebody) provide a broadband connection to that customer to feed the hotspot.
There are two revenue opportunities on the horizon today. The first is to offer WiFi phones. These phones are being offered today in two ways. First, there is the WiFi-only phone like Cablevision is offering and that only works on WiFi. Cablevision prices this at $9.95 per month for an existing cable customer and it’s nearly all margin. But there are several wireless resellers (and now also Google) who sell WiFi phones that will roam to cellular when WiFi is not available.
The primary issue with copying this business plan is that the companies doing it have all created a proprietary system that works only on a specific phone. That is not something easy for a smaller company to work out. There are some cheap Chinese WiFi-only phones available, but if you choose them you are competing against people’s preferences to use an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy by forcing them to your handset choice. This is not likely to be very popular until it becomes an app that will work on any phone.
The other new revenue opportunity is to sell wholesale WiFi access to others. I know Cisco has been touting this opportunity for several years. But I have yet to hear of anybody who has been able to monetize the idea. The cellular companies love it when customers use their phones on WiFi, but that’s a far cry from them being willing to buy time on your network on their customer’s behalf.
My conclusion of all of this is that it looks a tough business case today to build a citywide WiFi network. Right now the network hotspots are too expensive for a mass deployment. But there are vendors working on lower-cost hotspots. It also makes sense to wait until Hotspot 2.0 is fully fleshed-out and functional rather than buy a network with undefined future upgrade costs. And on the revenue side, while it sounds interesting to sell bulk WiFi, I have a hard time recommending this as a business plan unless you have presold some large customers like a utility or other carrier to buy bulk access to your new network. I have always been leery of ‘build-it-and-they-will-come’ business plans and I could recommend this only if there is a clear path to monetize it.