Blog Post

Consumers coming to expect free carrier Wi-Fi

Two numbers stood out in Wi-Fi aggregator Devicescape’s third-quarter customer survey released Tuesday. The first: 83 percent of Devicescape customers surveyed believed operators owe it to their customers to provide bundled Wi-Fi access to supplement their mobile broadband plans. The second: 26 percent of those customers are unaware that operators are capping mobile data plans.

That Devicescape customers think free Wi-Fi from their operators is an inalienable right shouldn’t come as surprise considering who those customers are. Devicescape aggregates millions of free unmanaged Wi-Fi access points and hotspots globally, creating a virtual network, which customers can hop on and off of at will and without access charges. It sells a client to handset makers and operators (MetroPCS(s PCS), Canada’s Public Mobile and iPass(s ipas) all use it) that automatically detects and logs into these access points, whether it’s free Internet at an independent coffee shop or a network of thousands of access points owned by a hotel chain.

By virtue of being Devicescape users – or members, as it calls them – all the consumers polled are all getting supplementary Wi-Fi access via a Devicescape partner or directly through the aggregator’s downloadable client. They’d naturally come to expect such a service as a given. And since most Wi-Fi handsets out there are smartphones, they tend to be a more sophisticated lot, further explaining the 83-percent response. But CEO Dave Fraser said Devicescape customers aren’t necessarily all savvy tech enthusiasts. Instead, they tend to be students and office professionals with traveling salesmen and even some retirees thrown into the mix. They represent a healthy cross-section of the mobile data consuming public, Fraser said.

What’s particularly interesting, though, is how those numbers don’t seem to gel with operators’ own attitudes. A recent Wireless Broadband Alliance study found 47 percent of operators viewed Wi-Fi offload as very important or crucial to their future mobile data strategies. While that’s no small number, if compared against Devicescape’s numbers, there seems to big a gap between how operators and their customers view the importance of carrier Wi-Fi.

The second surprising statistic from the survey is that 26 percent Devicescape’s users aren’t aware data plans are being capped. That would make perfect sense if we were talking a much broader pool of consumers, but remember these users tend to be very network- and plan-aware, otherwise they probably wouldn’t bother with Devicescape’s service. The study found 88 percent of those users know when they’re on Wi-Fi and when they’re on the cellular network, so they’re not blithely stumbling back and force between networks. Fraser said that gap might have less to do with customer ignorance than with how well operators have masked the specifics of their data caps and throttling plans. “Many people aren’t that sophisticated,” Fraser said in an email interview. “Did you read the capping note from AT&T?  Long text, lots of boring legalese.”

9 Responses to “Consumers coming to expect free carrier Wi-Fi”

  1. William Diaz


    Sprint who’s data network in 3G and 4G is metered with higher than competitors overage prices, offers the slowest day speed of every carrier (including rural carriers) has yet to offer any form of WiFi to their customers, and with their current issues, i doubt they ever will. But if one company has customers that expect free WiFi it will be Sprint customers who have been locked into long term high termination fee contracts for less than advertised service. I know that’s why I personally am leaving Sprint for T-Mobile, to become part of AT&T and use their robust data network for less overage than Sprint.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi William, thanks for responding. I’m not sure I understand. Sprint still offers unlimited data plans for 3G and 4G. Or are you using a metered feature phone plan?

  2. William Diaz

    I think with carriers offering more and more Smartphones and encouraging is to use them more over Feature phones, the carriers have crippled their own data networks to the point that overlaying any form of WiFi is a must. Unfortunately AT&T uses this as a perk so they can look good that they are providing free services to people who may not have access normally. Companies like T-Mobile that practically lived off WiFi have died out because they didn’t offer a competitive edge to their plans, ie. Free WiFi.

  3. i wonder if some people misunderstood the question.

    it seems that every day more and more people i talk too think the phrase ‘cell phone wifi’ refers to tethering hotspots.

    when it comes to cell phone wifi radios interest in using them for tethering outnumbers using them for faster internet by about 10 to 1.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi Tom, thanks for responding. I suspect the question was pretty clear. Many of these users actively downloaded the Devicescape app, while others are using the service through their operators who are sure to bring attention to the Wi-Fi services available. I do think there is a segment very interested in the idea of tethering to a smartphone via Wi-Fi, but I think its still rather small (growing though). Most people aren’t even aware of the capability and even fewer actually sign up for a tethering service (or hack their phones to get it free). A lot of people are aware that their phones log, or try to log into Wi-Fi networks because their phones tell them are (unless they had Wi-Fi deactivated at purchase and never turned it on).