Summary:

U.S. Cellular has added Wi-Fi to its mobile data toolbox. But rather than build or lease time on expensive managed hotspot networks, the Chicago carrier is working with Devicescape to tap into its virtual network of nearly 8 million open access points.

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U.S. Cellular has added its name to the growing roster of carriers looking to ease their mobile data burdens by tapping into the enormous pool of open Wi-Fi available in the public plazas, coffee shops and businesses. On Thursday the Chicago-based regional operator revealed it is contracting with Devicescape to use its virtual hotspot network on nearly 8 million Wi-Fi nodes.

Tapping into Wi-Fi to offload smartphone 3G and 4G traffic isn’t new. Carriers such as AT&T have built big networks of public hotspots for just that purpose. But since all of those hotspots are either owned or managed by the carriers and their partners, there’s a limit to far they can scale. Devicescape calls its network “virtual” because it doesn’t actually own or manage any of the hotspots it connects to. Instead it relies on its freely available smartphone and PC software to crowdsource information on more than hundred million open access points globally.

Currently, Devicescape has more than 8.6 million access points in its virtual network, of which 7.8 million are available in the US. In comparison, AT&T has 30,000. What’s more Devicescape is constantly expanding its number of hotspots. The clients loaded into customers’ phones are constantly scanning the airwaves for more open Wi-Fi, so the more U.S. Cellular subscribers use the service, the more access points they’ll eventually have available to them.

In addition to U.S .Cellular, Devicescape is working with virtual operator Republic Wireless, MetroPCS and Intel in the US, and with Bouygues in France. For U.S. Cellular, the network will be of particular use in its primary metro market Chicago. Not only does the city have a dense concentration of open Wi-Fi, but it has the densest concentration of US Cellular customers competing for time on its 3G network. U.S. Cellular has launched LTE in other parts of its footprint, but it doesn’t yet have the spectrum to offer 4G in the windy city.

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