Would you pay extra for seamless Wi-Fi connectivity?

A new standard will make it easy and seamless to sign on to Wi-Fi hotspots. But would you be willing to pay extra for it?

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read
The Wi-Fi Alliance conducted a survey that shows wireless users want easier access to Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi Alliance

NEW ORLEANS--Wireless carriers are looking to Wi-Fi to help them offload traffic from their cellular networks. And a new standard will make it even easier for consumers to use the unlicensed airwaves. But would you pay extra for that easy access?

The Wi-Fi Alliance, a trade association promoting the use of Wi-Fi, says a recent survey indicates that nearly three-quarters of respondents said they would.

The Wi-Fi Alliance is promoting the new standard, which will basically allow people to access a carrier's Wi-Fi without ever typing a passcode or even selecting a Wi-Fi hot spot. The technology will automatically authenticate users, and it will layer on security that is typically missing from some Wi-Fi hot spots. Depending on roaming agreements between carriers, users could get access to many more Wi-Fi networks via this technology than they would without it.

The Wi-Fi Alliance says that devices using the so-called Passpoint technology will start being certified in June.

The survey, which was conducted by Wakefield Research on behalf of the Wi-Fi Alliance, found that 90 percent of the 1,000 respondents polled said they would be more likely to stick with their current service provider if it offered the ability to connect automatically in Wi-Fi hot spots. And about 72 percent said they would pay more for it.

While it's no surprise that wireless subscribers would be happy about doing away with the cumbersome process of signing on to Wi-Fi networks, what is surprising is that people would be willing to pay extra for it.

Wi-Fi Alliance CEO Edgar Figueroa said this is an indication that wireless service providers might want to consider charging extra for the access as another revenue stream. But he was careful to say that he hasn't talked specifics with carriers about their monetization strategy when it comes to this technology.

"I think that we are at the dawn of where Wi-Fi providers can offer differentiated services from open Wi-Fi connections," Figueroa said. "And carriers could charge for that access, which could offer another revenue stream."

Wireless carriers have already been turning to Wi-Fi to help them alleviate congestion on their networks, especially in densely populated areas where usage is very high. Some carriers, such as AT&T, are building Wi-Fi hot zones in cities like New York and Chicago. Customers initially have to enable access to the wireless networks, but then they can be automatically authenticated onto those networks.

Today, the service is offered free of charge to customers who already subscribe to wireless data. And when using the Wi-Fi network, the data used isn't counted toward their monthly totals. Cable companies also offer Wi-Fi access in public areas for free to subscribers of their broadband services.

Figueroa said he didn't know if any carriers, like AT&T and the cable companies, would ever start charging for the access to Wi-Fi.

"We haven't talked about business models with the carriers," he said. "But it's an option."

Other survey findings suggest that 85 percent of respondents prefer Wi-Fi to their carrier's cellular network. I also find this claim interesting, but potentially misleading. Wi-Fi is faster, and perhaps many people prefer it because it's fast. But I also think many smartphone or tablet users accessing Wi-Fi like it because it doesn't count against their data plans. And for many with data plans it's also free.

In any case, it will be interesting to see if wireless carriers use Wi-Fi as a potential source of revenue or if they simply give it away for free to help alleviate congestion on their network. If history is any indication, companies may offer it as a perk until things becomes congested or difficult to manage, and then they'll start charging for it.

What do you think? Would you pay extra on your monthly wireless bill for easy access to Wi-Fi?