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Public Wi-Fi failing to attract road warriors

Only a third of 'heavy mobile users' utilise hotspots

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IDC's latest research into the mobile Internet market will not make pleasurable reading for public wireless hotspot entrepreneurs. Only 30 per cent of the company's 2500-strong Mobile Advisory Council (MAC) admit to being regular or occasional users of Wi-Fi hotspots.

Now, public hotspot usage is known to be limited to a relatively small number of individuals. But it has been assumed that there is demand for public wireless Internet access among mobile professionals - the 'road warrior' of legend. Indeed, most public Wi-Fi business models are based on that very assumption. High roll-out costs are being predicated on these early adopters' willingness to pay through the nose for high-speed Internet access in coffee bars, hotels, airports and the like.

The IDC data suggests that assumption may be flawed. IDC's MAC is made up of the very folk hotspot companies are hoping to attract. And yet almost three-quarters of the MAC - classic early adopters to a man or woman - do not use public Wi-Fi hotpots, Randy Giusto, VP of IDC's Personal Technologies and Services team told The Register.

To be fair, the MAC comprises 12,000 consumers and business users, of whom only 2500 responded to IDC's latest request for information. Around 84 per cent of MAC members are based in the US, but a growing proportion of European and Asia-Pacific voices are being added to the Council, said Giusto. However, they are still people who use mobile computing devices - notebooks, PDAs and cellphones - regularly and frequently.

According to Giusto, hotspots are most likely to be used by college students and young professionals - twentysomethings and thirtysomethings, basically - but usage does spread right across the demographic range. Preferred hotspot locations are travel centres and coffee shops, but Giusto noted a particular keenness on university campus WLANs, primarily among the young, unsurprisingly.

Incidentally, notebooks remain the platform of choice for mobile Internet access.

Alas, the survey didn't ask whether these hotspot locations are preferred because they're place where users tend to be when they want to go online, or whether users are simply congregating where they are most likely to get access to the Net. In other words, are the users seeking out hotspots, or are the hotspot vendors putting their base-stations in the right places to attract the right clients? Giusto's feeling, based on the demographic data, is that the latter is the most likely.

But if hotspot providers can be sure of getting the right kind of customer to come within range of their access points, can they be sure punters will pay enough to log onto the Net to cover their costs?

Giusto's numbers suggest they may not. Only 30 per cent of MAC members surveyed are willing to pay over $10 per month. Around half said $5-10 would be their sweet spot. The rest essentially want the service to be free. These figures are spread pretty evenly across the demographic range, said Giusto.

Asked how they would prefer to pay, MAC members were against annual subscriptions, but monthly subs or billing fees to mobile phone accounts were popular. Most members were less keen on pay-as-you-go access, though Giusto notes this method is favoured by the 30-39 year-old range.

As the group most likely to be paying to experiment with Wi-Fi access today, that's probably because they've yet to determine whether they will use such services sufficiently to warrant a regular subscription. Giusto reckons most of them are picking up the tab themselves. Like early PDA purchases, business Wi-Fi users are buying for their own needs, and not yet claiming it back on expenses.

IDC's numbers suggest that users will demand a range of payment options, to best suit their individual usage patterns. Crucially, they're not willing to pay too much for it, since the purchase - even with business users - is personal.

Getting the pricing right appears to be essential not simply to creating a mainstream market for public wireless Internet access, but even to attract the pro-mobile, early adopters necessary to build a viable customer base. ®

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