What will it take to make Wi-Fi more popular in Europe?

I’ve been thinking about this for the last two weeks after coming back from Austin, Texas where I attended the Wireless Future Conference (part of South by Southwest Austin). At the Austin Convention Center, I saw dozens of people tapping away at their Wi-Fi enabled laptops (mostly Apple Powerbooks) during the sessions and outside. The presence of free Wi-Fi madeI’ve been thinking about this for the last two weeks after coming back from Austin, Texas where I attended the Wireless Future Conference (part of South by Southwest Austin). At the Austin Convention Center, I saw dozens of people tapping away at their Wi-Fi enabled laptops (mostly Apple Powerbooks) during the sessions and outside. The presence of free Wi-Fi made a huge difference! I also noticed a lot of people using free Wi-Fi in cafes (thanks to the efforts of the Austin Wireless City project).

By contrast, at the Hotspot Event 2004 in Amsterdam last week at the Okura Hotel, anyone who wanted to get online at the conference had to buy an expensive (25 EUR per day) day pass from the Wi-Fi provider, Swisscom Eurospot. You would think they’d give access away for free for at least for a day, especially at a hotspot event. Needless to say, I saw only one person tapping away at his laptop. That’s really depressing. Swisscom Eurospot charges some of the highest prices I’ve ever seen and they appear to have inspired the other Wi-Fi access providers in Europe to do the same.

Is there a cultural difference here? Are Americans just less tolerant of the kinds of rip-off pricing that Europeans seem to accept as God’s will? Hotels, cafes and other locations around the US are busy offering free Wi-Fi, not so in Europe. Or maybe Europeans like to squint into their mobile phones to get their email via GPRS with the incredibly awful per megabyte billing. I don’t know.

It is difficult to see how Wi-Fi will ever become as popular in Europe as it is in the US. Until those crazy prices drop, you will not see Wi-Fi take off here like it has done in the States. It reminds me of dial-up Internet service back in the early 1990s. In the US, ISPs sold dial-up service for a monthly (flat) fee with no by-the-minute billing (calls within your area code were included in your subscription). By contrast, European ISPs billed by the minute, which made Internet access very expensive. The result: Europe lagged the US in Internet use for many years. The same is happening now with wireless. The attempts of Orange and Swisscom to expand their network of hotspots and later combine Wi-Fi service with GPRS/3G will not help at all. If they think I’ll sign up for their expensive service just because I can get ripped off in one bill, they’re wrong. Note: aside from the high Wi-Fi access prices, European operators will also do you the honor of billing you by the megabyte for GPRS service. That has not taken off either.

Comments

  1. Muniwireless says

    Deutsche Bahn’s decision to charge 29.95 EUR per day (and 3.95 EUR per hour) for wireless access in its Duesseldorf train station will NOT make wireless access popular.

    The RAI (Amsterdam’s largest convention center) is also getting Wi-Fi coverage but again they will charge a lot of money for access: 1 hour – 7,50 EUR, 1 day – 19 EUR and 2 days – 30 EUR.

    When I attended the Interactive portion of SXSW last March at the Austin Convention Center, Wi-Fi access was free and guess what, nearly everyone had a laptop, blogging and IM-ing away, looking at websites, etc. It made for a more dynamic, interesting conference. The RAI should follow Austin’s example. But no, too many people are too desperate trying to squeeze revenues out of Wi-Fi, which ironically will slow its adoption.

    Just as it lagged behind the US in Internet access because of high, per minute dial-up charges, Europe is threatening to lag again in wireless Internet use.

  2. Esme,

    On a positive note, TDC Hotspot (500 locations, including hotels, CPH airport, Statoil petrol stations and McDonalds) is €33/month, flat rate. Smaller competitor HotSpotLive is €13/month.

    However, what I really believe will make Wi-Fi take off in the public are… municipal networks.
    I think you will see the first deployments this spring in anticipation of the tourist season at hospitality sites like marinas, tourist offices and museums.
    During winter politicians will hopefully become aware of small successes and launch something 6-18 months beyond that.

    Wishful thinking?

    /n