Wi-Fi Hotspots, Only Going to Get Hotter

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The number of Wi-Fi hotspot connections is expected to explode to 11 billion sessions by 2014, up from 2 billion this year as mobile devices proliferate, according to research firm In-Stat. This growth in Wi-Fi sessions, which has largely contributed to the rise of public Wi-Fi zones, will easily outpace the number of available Wi-Fi hotspot venues, even as cellular operators continue to try offloading traffic from their networks.

Even though the pace of Wi-Fi venue growth is expected to taper off in the next few years, usage growth will only continue and become more concentrated with the increase of more Wi-Fi enabled devices, said In-Stat. The firm said by 2012, half of all hotspot sessions will occur through handheld devices, and it’s estimated the total hotspot market is about 319,200 venues currently worldwide. Europe and North America are the largest hotspot markets now, but the Asia-Pacific region will account for 25 percent of hotspots by 2014, said In-Stat.

The mass adoption of Wi-Fi fits in with what we’ve been reporting here. Even as 3G and 4G networks expand and gain speed, Wi-Fi is proving even more popular, especially with carriers looking to offload their cellular traffic. AT&T just announced it was expanding its Wi-Fi hotzone pilot program in New York’s Times Square, downtown Charlotte, N.C., and Chicago’s Wrigleyville, for example. It will widen coverage in New York and also add Wi-Fi to parts of downtown San Francisco: two areas notorious for bad cellular coverage. AT&T said it made more than 350,000 connections at its three pilot hotzones over several months. In the third quarter of this year, AT&T reported 106.9 million Wi-Fi connections on its nationwide Wi-Fi network of 23,000 hotspots, compared to 85.5 million connections throughout 2009.

Even with billions of investment dollars in 3G and 4G, Wi-Fi is proving to be a very reliable way to connect users. My colleague Kevin reported back in August that the number of free Wi-Fi hotspots eclipsed paid hotspots for the first time in the second quarter with much of the growth due to carriers and cable companies offering more hotzone coverage. More Wi-Fi coverage is leading to heavier use: Wi-Fi provider Towerstream recorded 21 million connections in one quarter earlier this year for its mid-town New York Wi-Fi zone. Wi-Fi will be a critical piece of the broadband landscape for many years to come, especially with newly approved white spaces rules that could lead to super Wi-Fi soon.

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