The increasing demand for smartphones, tablets, and other connected devices is generating staggering amounts of mobile data. The Cisco Visual Networking Index (VNI) predicts that global mobile data traffic will increase 18-fold from 2011 to 2016, reaching 10.8 exabytes per month.

In this article I discuss how the use of Wi-Fi for Internet access is exploding as more mobile devices are Wi-Fi enabled, the number of public hotspots expands, and user acceptance grows.  The article will explore the significance of the research and explain how these findings can help Service Providers to understand the size of the opportunity, develop strategies for success, and differentiate their Wi-Fi offerings and initiatives to become more competitive.

Current Wi-Fi state of play

Most mobile operators now realise that offloading data traffic to Wi-Fi can, and must, play a significant role in helping them avoid clogged networks and unhappy customers. In addition, service providers (SPs) are struggling to understand new business models for making money from Wi-Fi.

Despite this, there is currently limited knowledge about how end users are actually using Wi-Fi, how they want to employ it in the future, and, more specifically, about what drives them to connect their devices to the Internet with Wi-Fi rather than “mobile.”

Nomadic mobile devices

The research shows that 73 per cent of Britons now have laptop computers. Perhaps more significant, our findings indicate that the number of smartphone users has significantly surpassed that of basic mobile phones: 63 per cent of respondents own smartphones versus 37 per cent who use traditional mobile phones. It was also interesting to see that the majority of people are using mobile devices at home, despite the availability of laptops, desktops and tablets.

The remarkable thing is that all of these devices now have Wi-Fi Internet access capabilities. In fact, with the exception of smartphones, Wi-Fi is now the predominant access technology for mobile devices. More “nomadic” devices like laptops, tablets, and eReaders almost exclusively connect to the Internet through Wi-Fi, with only approximately 20 per cent of these devices having any mobile connectivity capability.

Connecting predominantly via Wi-Fi

This shift to Wi-Fi-enabled devices and locations is impacting how users are choosing to connect their devices to the Internet. Most mobile users are connecting their devices via Wi-Fi at some point, including more than 80 per cent of smartphone owners. However, despite this high number only 5% of tablets use mobile and most rely on Wi-Fi for connectivity.

Even more astounding is that mobile users would prefer to connect all of their devices via Wi-Fi, including smartphones. Given a choice, almost 80 per cent of tablet, laptop, and e- Reader owners would either prefer Wi-Fi to mobile access, or have no preference. And, three-quarters of smartphone owners would prefer to use Wi-Fi, or are ambivalent about the two access networks.

One growing trend we are seeing in the market is the fact people are continuing to connect via public Wi-Fi, almost a 1/3 of the time. In most instances, the consumers expectation is that public Wifi should be free.

The “New Mobile” = Wi-Fi + Mobile

The results of the research seem to indicate that we may be on the verge of a “New Mobile paradigm”—one in which Wi-Fi and mobile networks are seamlessly integrated and indistinguishable in the mobile user’s mind. Almost half of UK consumers were “somewhat” or “very” interested in a proposed offer that provides unlimited data across combined access networks for a flat monthly fee.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest perceived benefits were lower overall costs and unlimited data, signalling the end of uncertainty about charges for over use. However, more than one-third of people liked the location flexibility, reliability, and seamless transfer between networks that this proposition offered.

Changing Wi-Fi landscape

New devices, changes in customer behaviours, and technological advances are rapidly pushing the use of Wi-Fi as a wireless access technology by mobile users. Cisco IBSG’s mobile connectivity research clearly demonstrates that British consumers are adopting Wi- Fi to connect their growing portfolio of mobile devices to the Internet.

While mobile users recognise that there are differences between the two access technologies, most see them as part of a seamless, integrated means to gain the constant connectivity that their mobile lives and devices demand. Many mobile providers may see this as a threat to their traditional mobile business. However, Wi-Fi does offer new opportunities to enhance the overall mobile customer proposition and experience, as well as commercialisation models.

In summary, as demand for mobile devices and network connectivity continues to grow, both Wi-Fi and traditional mobile networks will be critical to meeting the needs of mobility-enabled consumers. Service Providers are in an enviable position of being able to successfully integrate these networks and the experience of their customers to provide what the market wants: New Mobile.