Wi-Fi becoming ubiquitous

Wi-Fi networks are spreading throughout the world, proving an increasingly popular method for wireless access to the internet, according to a new report from Wi-Fi crowdsourcing company WeFi.

And with handset makers developing more smartphones with embedded Wi-Fi, using Symbian, Android and other smartphone platforms, the handset is catching up to the laptop in terms of Wi-Fi data consumption.

Wi-Fi networks are becoming ubiquitous, the report states - WeFi's Wi-Fi scanning client software has now detected over 56 million access points worldwide, with around 100,000 unique Wi-Fi networks added to its database per day.

While hotspots are proliferating across Asia, according to Canalys analyst senior Tong-Yen Lau, the development of Wi-Fi networks is fragmented in the region.

"Singapore on one side of the scale offers free Wi-Fi access across the whole island, whereas countries like China and South Korea are still building up Wi-Fi networks," he said.

According to ABI Research VP for forecasting Jake Saunders, Asia is quite an open Wi-Fi market, "but in terms of number of Wi-Fi hotspots, the market tends to be dominated by incumbent telecom operators."

There are a number of specialty Wi-Fi providers in the region, he said, but with a few exceptions their presence is small.

Regardless of the access provider, laptops and netbooks still consume the biggest portion of the data on Wi-Fi networks worldwide, according to the WeFi report. The majority of these devices use more than 500 MB - and a plurality more than 2 GB - per month.

But smartphones - particularly Android and Symbian handsets - are increasingly catching up as a consumption driver. The report excludes iPhones because Apple refuses to carry hotspot sniffer apps such as WeFi's on the iTunes app store.

Lau said around 56% of the smartphones shipped in the APAC region in 2009 had built-in Wi-Fi capabilities. This compares to just 23% in 2008.

Android vs Symbian

WeFi said that despite Symbian's long lead, "Android is gradually taking the lead as the upcoming Wi-Fi driven mobile internet platform."

When broken down by smartphone platform, Android devices beat Symbian devices in every category of usage past 100 MB. While 80% of Symbian devices consume less than 100 MB of data per month, only around 50% of Android devices are in this category. And well over twice as many Android users as Symbian users consume over 500 MB.

What's more, Android's growth is becoming an increasingly international phenomenon - 60% of Android devices detected as connecting to a Wi-Fi network came from outside the US. In mid-2009, the US represented 90% of devices.

ABI Research estimates 5.5 million to six million Android handsets shipped in Q1, compared to 3.5 million the quarter before.

But the platform is yet to gain much traction in Asia, outside of Japan - which accounts for 5% of all devices - and South Korea 4%.

And Android has a long way to go to catch up to Symbian in terms of overall shipments. Figures from Canalys indicate that Android had a market share of just 1% in APAC in 2009, compared to Symbian's 75%.

"The number of Symbian Foundation-based smartphones with Wi-Fi capabilities is also far ahead of Android phones," Lau said.

But this breakdown may soon change as China Mobile proceeds with the promotion of eight recently-launched phones based on the Open Mobile System, an internally-developed variant of Android.

Vendors such as Huawei and ZTE are also planning to roll out a number of Android-based handsets, Saunders added, "and their business strategy of producing operator branded handsets could well translate to growing handset volumes for the Android platform."

But ABI also expects Symbian to hold on to the lion's share of the global smartphone market until at least 2014, when it will have a 32% share compared to Android's 19%.

And according to WeFi, both these platforms "still have a way to go in providing a full Wi-Fi driven experience." Until they succeed, mobile devices will still lag behind laptops and netbooks in terms of data consumption.