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Wi-Fi hotspot grab coming to a city near you

Matt Hamblen | April 28, 2014
A mega-battle is brewing between corporate giants such as AT&T, Google and Time Warner Cable to build Wi-Fi hotspots in U.S. cities connected to massive gigabit fiber-optic or fast networks of cable providers.

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, said even AT&T's reliance on Wi-Fi in many locations hasn't been sufficient to handle the coming bandwidth load of uses, especially things like video over Netflix, YouTube and video used in ads.

"As users increase their use of rich media, they load up the networks pretty badly, and with an expected 1000x bandwidth increase needed by 2020, there's a real problem," Gold said.

"Google is seeing the writing on the wall as well as AT&T and wants to make sure it can offer its enhanced services where bandwidth may be constrained," Gold added. "If you have a slow network, serving ads and serving up YouTube is a terrible experience. And with a terrible experience, users won't go there. And if they won't go there, Google can't serve you ads ... and generate revenues per click. For Google, it's all about making sure they can maintain the click rates they need to keep their money machine going."

In cities where Google Fiber is already being rolled out, city and neighborhood leaders have reported that Google has refused in the past to connect its fiber to Wi-Fi for use in apartment buildings and low-income housing projects. They say Google contends that such Wi-Fi service wouldn't be secure or reliable, especially with the signal passing through concrete walls.

Google now holds a more positive stance on public locations for its Wi-Fi, especially outdoors, where concrete walls aren't an impediment.

"We would be interested in providing public, outdoor Wi-Fi access to our Google Fiber cities, although we don't have any specific plans to announce right now," Google spokeswoman Jenna Wandres said Friday.

She refused to say if Google's "public" approach would allow anyone with a Wi-Fi ready device to join the Google Wi-Fi or only Google Fiber customers, in keeping with the approach of some other providers.

The Google Wi-Fi locations will probably be similar to what Google has done in Mountain View, Calif., according to a community activist who asked not to be identified. "Knowing Google's past behavior, its locations for future Wi-Fi will be based on where they can get the most useful consumer information to resell to advertisers and push their products," the activist said. "Don't forget, mining individual user data is how Google has made their billions."

Time Warner appears to be following a similar strategy in the Kansas City area, where residents have noticed Wi-Fi hotspots pop up to add convenience to smartphone-or tablet-carrying Time Warner customers.

Activists speculated that the cable provider is sapping up the free, unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum in its many Kansas City locations, which essentially stalls competing providers from moving in. Instead of a land grab, there's a kind of spectrum grab. Time Warner wouldn't comment on that speculation.


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