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Friday, September 09, 2011

More thoughts and observations on WiFi Neutrality

I wrote a month ago about the importance of "WiFi Neutrality" - that users should not face unreasonable blocks on which WiFi networks they can access, especially where a mobile operator attempts to force them towards "preferred WiFi networks", and stops (or makes it hard for) that decision being over-ridden by the customer.

Over the past few weeks, I've been speaking to a variety of operators and vendors in more depth about this issue. I'm seeing something of a polarisation:

  • There are some who understand that the WiFi genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and that (perhaps grudgingly) users need to be given tools to set their own preferences and policies, and that the operator's / network's role is in helping make the telco-preferred WiFi easier and safer to use, when that's appropriate. Ideally over time, a greater proportion of WiFi usage will occur on the operator's own or partnered networks, and more control can be exerted, or unique services offered.
  • There remain others who are either hostile to WiFi on smartphones entirely, or who believe that it can/should be strictly controlled by the operator, even to the extent of greying-out menus or features on connection manager software that allow user choice to be exerted.
My view is that the latter group are in for an extremely hard and unpleasant surprise, especially if they operate in competitive markets. There are probably now a billion or more regular users of WiFi, who understand it well, deal with occasionally-clunky authentication, but who like the freedom to choose when and where they connect - especially if it's free. Taking that choice away from them, when they have already come to expect WiFi Neutrality on their smartphones, is unlikely to be received positively. Even changing the connection experience to add in more clicks/swipes to get to what used to be easy is likely to be anathema.

It's also important to note that about 2/3rd of WiFi users (in the UK at least) *never* use public hotspots at all. This is something I backed-out of some recent Ofcom data about Internet usage, devices and locations: the proportion using hotspots is tiny compared to the total "wireless" use on laptops, even when you factor in some of them using 3G dongles. Conclusion - the bulk of WiFi usage is in homes or offices - "private WiFi", not offload or anything to do with the operator.

As I've been saying for years, WiFi is actually WLAN, or Wireless Ethernet. You wouldn't expect a service provider to manage the RJ45 socket on your laptop, nor for that matter the USB ports or Bluetooth. Exactly the same deal with WiFi - it's a general-purpose utility for laptops and smartphones, with many use-cases, only a small proportion of which are anything to do with "services".

There is one large exception here - China - where WiFi has always been a lot more tightly regulated and controlled than in much of the rest of the world, for both public and private use. Like other countries with restrictions on their citizens' use of technology, I can accept that a more proscriptive approach to on-device WiFi connection management is likely.

But more generally, I still believe that operators need to balance their own uses of WiFi on consumers' devices with their users' other applications of the technology. If they don't they will likely catalyse a shift towards "vanilla" devices bought through retail, just using an operator SIM and minimal app/branding customisation. These will be owned by the user, who will then obviously be able to use WiFi however they wish, just as they do today on laptops.

Operators need to encourage on-net WiFi use (ie their own / partners' WiFi) by making the experience and performance better. The opposite strategy - trying to make the experience worse for off-net WiFi - is not tenable.

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