Phone firms seek to boost Wi-fi usage away from home

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 February, 2013, 5:25am

Wi-fi networks, having become a household fixture in the past decade, remains too annoying to use outside the home for many, hindering carriers' ambitions to leverage wireless internet technology.

As hotspots pop up across cities and public transportation, multiple passwords, spotty coverage, extra charges and phones that connect to unauthorised Wi-fi by mistake and disable wireless data are turning some customers off. Home remained the most popular place to use Wi-fi: some operators saw as much as 75 per cent of mobile traffic carried on personal routers, while as little as 5 per cent went over outdoor hotspots, industry group Wireless Broadband Alliance found in a survey in November last year.

Dave Field, a public-relations consultant in London who uses Sky's Cloud Wi-fi service and Virgin Media's hotspots in the London Underground, said: "The phone connects to the network automatically: you appear to have Wi-fi, and all connection is in fact lost. Auto-connect is also a real pain, as you often need to complete long forms and bank cards, quite difficult on an iPhone."

Such complaints make it more difficult for providers such as Vodafone and AT&T, which are increasingly counting on the technology to ease traffic on their mobile networks, and companies like BT and British Sky Broadcasting, which want to use Wi-fi to win user loyalty.

At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, more than 70,000 people are gathering to discuss the future of wireless communications. Companies' ambitions of streaming videos through wireless networks and marketing to consumers by location depend on full and frequent access to the mobile web. To assist bloggers, analysts and media swarming the Fira Gran Via convention centre, organisers have promised 50 per cent more Wi-fi hotspots this year.

The Wireless Broadband Alliance is working to ease access, pushing for so-called next-generation hotspots to cut the need for user names and passwords. More than 50 companies, including AT&T, BT and China Mobile, agreed in December to roaming deals integrating Wi-fi networks, billing and security as part of the initiative. It will begin deploying in the first half of this year.

The group is also testing a system using mobile-phone smartcards to identify users so they will not have to log in.

By using SIM cards, which store a user's identity in the phone, customers would not have to log in to the best available networks and their credentials would work across them all, said Tiago Rodrigues, the alliance's programme director.

"It's a mechanism that is in some ways similar to the experience we have when we go abroad," Rodrigues said. "Our mobiles select the network that is available automatically."