Report says free hotspot locations now outnumber paid locations in U.S.

Lynnette LunaNew data released by mobile media company JiWire, which recorded data from some 315,000 public WiFi locations from May to June, shows that free WiFi hotspots in the U.S. outnumber paid WiFi locations for the first time. JiWire indicated that 55 percent of U.S. locations are now offering free WiFi, which represents a 12.6 percent increase from the first quarter. Not surprisingly, hotels and cafes offer the most free WiFi access, while hotels, cafes and airports continue to be the primary WiFi venues. WiFi in these venues is like air. It's just expected to be there and mostly for free.

Moreover, Starbucks' move in July to offer free WiFi can be characterized as the last barrier to paid-for WiFi. It did so after McDonald's went free. And it appears a whole host of retailers will use free WiFi to not only offer connectivity to their customers but to help sell products. Sam's Club, for instance, recently announced plans to outfit all of its warehouses with free WiFi, which the company says should help it sell Internet-enabled HDTVs.

This move to free WiFi makes me wonder how long providers like Boingo can continue on a paid subscription model. There are just too many free hotspots popping up. JiWire's report shows an 11 percent increase in other locations, such as universities and transit, which indicates the rapid emergence of new types of locations implementing WiFi as an added service.

Then again, there are those who frequent WiFi hotspots enough to want to pay to have a single sign-in through a company like Boingo. And as mobile operators see hotspots as a strategic asset, both in terms of customer retention and offloading data traffic (for mobile operators), there is a need for an aggregator of sorts to make the move between 3G and WiFi a seamless process. Moving the idea even farther, there could be an opportunity for a WiFi wholesaler of sorts to deploy WiFi optimized for carrier connectivity and in places that are strategic to operators. We could very well see the WiFi aggregator model rise again in a different form.--Lynnette

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