Mobile broadband: WiFi, 3G--or both?

Despite the increasingly aggressive deployment and marketing of mobile broadband by European cellular operators, WiFi traffic within the EU grew (year-on-year) nearly 90 per cent and now accounts for close to half of global hotspot traffic.

Of more interest to the marketing departments within cellphone companies is that almost 70 per cent of the worldwide WiFi traffic growth is down to European business users. Assuming these numbers to be correct, it may explain why mobile operators are attempting to battle their way into this lucrative arena with "free" laptops and "unlimited" data tariffs.

Given this very high-profile activity, some observers are already predicting the decline and eventual death of the WiFi hotspot business.

Not many acknowledge this extreme viewpoint, accepting that most mobile operators do not have WiFi as part of their product portfolio.

What might be interesting to watch is BT's latest announcement made today. The company is taking the viewpoint that business users will want to be connected in the best way possible--albeit using fixed, WiFi or 3G. As such the company is now bundling these options to provide the best of all worlds to subscribers wanting to access the Internet.

Also of note is that the company has slashed its WiFi charges by up to 50 per cent--a tactic seemingly designed to flatten other pure-play WiFi operators, and to stay competitive to the offers made by cellular operators.

WiFi would certainly seem to have carved a position in the marketplace to guarantee its longevity--it had a technology roadmap, widespread support and a customer base of many tens of millions.

This likely means that wireless broadband will become a hybrid of WiFi, 3G/4G, and in certain regions, WiMAX. This might appear today as being technically complex and costly, but the cellphone industry has proved itself very capable of overcoming these barriers--if the financial rewards are apparent. --Paul