Consumers Making Wi-Fi Hotspots Hot

Earlier this month, when I visited Paris for the Le Web 2009, the most important thing I “packed” for the trip didn’t weigh an ounce: an account with Wi-Fi hotspot aggregation service, Boingo. It alone allowed me to stay connected, avoid expensive hotel Wi-Fi access fees and most importantly, not feel out of touch from the people I care about. I used my iPod touch (S aapl) (which is really an iPhone without a live cellphone connection) to make Skype calls via Wi-Fi, check email and whatever else.

In fact the only time I used my MacBook Pro was to download photos from the camera or craft blog posts. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. Such behavior — forgoing the laptop in favor of a WiFi-enabled device such as a smartphone — is becoming increasingly commonplace.

Thanks to the growing popularity of such devices, including phones and cameras, Wi-Fi hotspots are becoming increasingly useful. We’ve closely tracked the rise of Wi-Fi taking place thanks to smartphones, and today there’s new data out which shows that Wi-Fi usage while on the go continues to get traction.

“The ubiquity of Wi-Fi has created hotspot coverage as an expected amenity at many places of business,” says Frank Dickson, In-Stat analyst. “While consumer or leisure users do not often carry a laptop, they do have Wi-Fi enabled handhelds and are using these devices to access hotspots. This, coupled with the service being bundled with mobile plans, is making hotspot access much more consumer-oriented compared to the service’s former business focus.”

Handhelds accounted for 35 percent of all hotspot connections in 2009, up from 20 percent in 2008, and are forecast to account for fully half of them by 2011, according to market research firm, In-Stat,. The research firm estimates that the hotspot usage on the whole will increase 47 percent in 2009, bringing the total number of connections to 1.2 billion. A report by JiWire estimates that during the first half of 2009, the number of Wi-Fi hotspots around the world grew by 9 percent.

According to In-Stat research, WiFi-enabled devices such as game players, personal media players and cameras are going to see a sharp increase between 2009 and 2013, rising from 108.8 million to 177.3 million.

There is a predominance of mobile carriers in the hotspot market, resulting in promotion of Wi-Fi enabled handset devices on their networks. New dual-mode Wi-Fi phones are coming to the market. Growth in applications, such as content download, or even more so VoFi, will drive usage of handheld devices over the coming years. Finally, markets, such as China, are opening for hotspots that have previously restricted Wi-Fi usage on handhelds.

I wonder when we’ll see similar trends unfold in the U.S. I, for one, am happy to leave my laptop at home.