When I set up my first Wi-Fi network in my home in 2000, it was still just called “802.11b”, and it was expensive and super difficult to use. A Wi-Fi card for your laptop cost $700, and an access point was $2,000. Even so, I realized quickly that Wi-Fi hardware would come down in price and networks would appear everywhere.
I also realized that a company was needed to make it easier to find and connect to Wi-Fi networks outside the home and office, so in 2001, I founded Boingo Wireless. In a TED Talk that year I gave a presentation describing “Packetspace” — a world where the Internet is in the air we breathe. It was a novel concept at a time when getting online meant being chained to a desk.
It’s been a crazy ride ever since. In 2015, a projected 2.14 billion Wi-Fi devices will ship, including about 1.4 billion Wi-Fi enabled phones, and 725 million homes will have Wi-Fi networks. From 2012 to 2017, the number of Wi-Fi gadgets will quadruple to 20 billion — almost three for every person on Earth.
Yet, it’s still too hard to get connected
There are two types of Wi-Fi locations: private and public. Private networks are in homes, offices and schools and usually password protected and closed. Public networks are found in cafes, airports, stadiums, hotels and other public spaces and are typically either paid or ad supported. Most high quality public Wi-Fi networks require an account to access, and the user needs to enter a username and password or sign up with a credit card.
Wi-Fi is rolling out across cities as well. If you’re in the U.S., you’ve probably seen a “CableWiFi” signal in your town. All the major cable operators are deploying city-wide outdoor Wi-Fi networks. Unfortunately, in order to connect, you need to enter your cable account login information — and there are probably twelve people on the planet who have memorized their cable username and password. Imagine if every time you wanted to use your cell phone, you had to key in your login information. You wouldn't!
Everything is about to change
Enter Hotspot 2.0, which you'll hear about under the brand “Passpoint,” a set of new industry standards being rolled out to millions of hotspots and hundreds of millions of devices. With Passpoint, you’ll still need an account with a hotspot operator like Boingo, Time Warner Cable or another operator, but once you set up access the first time, your phone and all your devices will simply connect whenever they're in range of any signal your operator has access to, including networks they don’t own but can roam onto. And the link will be secure.
I predict major wireless carriers will eventually bundle Wi-Fi for free to their customers to offload congested cellular networks. In fact, Passpoint will finally make Wi-Fi roaming more like cellular roaming. And it will work across all your devices — phone, tablet, laptop, car, etc. They’ll just connect.
When that happens, you’ll start moving between Wi-Fi and cellular seamlessly, and usage on Wi-Fi networks will skyrocket, leading to an accelerating wave of Wi-Fi infrastructure build outs. Cable companies are now installing hundreds of thousands of Passpoint-ready access points across cities, Boingo is lighting up airports and soon stadiums, military bases and college campuses. Passpoint-ready hotspots will soon be everywhere.
Your devices will just auto-connect, and that will lead to a staggering increase in usage on Wi-Fi networks.
Shortly after the iPhone came out, AT&T’s then 3G network came under intense pressure. To reduce congestion, AT&T and Apple worked together to make iPhones auto-connect to AT&T Wi-Fi locations whenever it saw a signal — mainly in Starbucks. They basically hacked the iPhone so it had Passpoint-type capability years before Passpoint was developed.
What happened next? AT&T's Wi-Fi network had 20 million connects in 2008, and 2.7 billion connects in 2012, a 1350X increase:
That's 2.7 billion connects per year, on just one phone model, on just one carrier, in only 32k AT&T Wi-Fi locations, mostly Starbucks. What will happen to Wi-Fi use when Passpoint allows auto-connect in millions of hotspots and billions of devices in the next 5 to 10 years?
The mobile revolution’s insatiable thirst for bandwidth
The average mobile user now consumes 6.6 gigabytes of data per month and growing, fueled by cloud, music and video streaming services. Under such pressures, LTE network speeds already slowed 32% in 2013. Wi-Fi is extremely fast and low cost, and it can do more of the heavy lifting, but until now it’s been too difficult for users to connect to public hotspots.
You may not have heard of Passpoint, but it’s the next big thing in Wi-Fi, and soon you’re going to see it everywhere. It means you’ll be able to move from place to place and always be connected on the fastest available network, Wi-Fi or cellular, often on more than one network simultaneously. And that's very good news, because it means the incredible explosion of innovation in the mobile Internet will continue unabated.