I have just flown around the world in 16 days: Delhi to Delhi via London, New York, Toronto, Montreal, LA, Brisbane and Singapore. While I had trouble keeping up with my time zones, I had little problem staying up to date with email or social media and that too, at no additional cost.
What I picked up from my extensive travel was the widespread availability of publicly accessible WiFi services, most of it funded through revenue models, which means you get some form of access for free. Most shopping malls in Singapore, almost every airport terminal in all the cities mentioned above, the Qantas flight from LA to Brisbane, and a number of coffee shops as well as department stores in Brisbane and London–all offer WiFi access for free. Chinatown in Singapore is WiFi-enabled too, including the outdoor areas and streets in a square-kilometre block–in a model funded by the local businesses’ association.
In most of these cases, there are distinct business models which provide an opportunity for the WiFi provider to make money indirectly from the usage:
- Paid for advertising onto the user’s tablet or handset
- Prompts to the user’s handset which will trigger purchases (mainly in shopping malls and stores)
- Collection of the user’s demographic and location information which will be sold later for direct marketing
Using most of these free services is easy as it takes less than a minute to log in and start surfing. For me, the key draw was that as an international roaming traveller, I could defray significant mobile data roaming costs by using these services. I was also saved from the hassle of buying a local SIM card everywhere I went to. Most importantly, my precious time was saved. I was also able to save on making some international voice calls by using internet-enabled services such as Google Hangouts to conduct video calls instead of making a public-switched voice call paying a roaming tariff.
It is time we see public WiFi scale in India. Data usage is on the rise and smartphones are becoming far more prevalent. Yet, at the same time, the user experience on 3G is still patchy, especially in crowded spots. Provided the WiFi revenue models are carefully worked out in each instance, nobody needs to lose money by providing the service for free. Where the free-to-air revenue model doesn’t work, the services can remain paid for. In coffee shops, for example.
Operators need not think they’ll lose out on data or roaming revenue:
- A lot of WiFi-connected usage results in consumption (eg video calls, YouTube) which would not have happened on a mobile data service–so the substitution of mobile data usage is relatively modest
- For roaming users. Mobile data is more than often switched off these days, and so again, there is arguably limited substitution of actual mobile data usage due to using WiFi
From a cost point of view, operators may of course benefit. During heavy data sessions, moving to WiFi will help reduce transmission cost compared to supporting such sessions over the mobile radio network.
I have one additional theory which is that mobile operators may actually benefit when roamers jump onto public WiFi services, which is that the possibility of saving on mobile data roaming will dissuade users out of the laziness from buying a local SIM card to make voice calls. This is exactly what happened to me in the past two weeks: In the US, Canada and Singapore, I didn’t bother with local SIM cards, and will probably end up with a significantly larger voice roaming bill as a result. This specific business case would be worthy of a case study for mobile operators.
My sense is that the time is right for public WiFi to scale up in India–and that this has the opportunity to be another building block to encouraging truly higher levels of data usage in public places, alongside 3G and if rapid, then before the onset of 4G.