Mobile broadband is killing free Wi-Fi

Mobile broadband is killing free Wi-Fi

Summary: After spending two weeks in Japan scrounging for free Wi-Fi, I've come to the conclusion that mobile broadband is killing free Wi-Fi.

TOPICS: Telcos, Networking, Wi-Fi

After spending two weeks in Japan scrounging for free Wi-Fi, I've come to the conclusion that mobile broadband is killing free Wi-Fi.


WiMax and BB Mobilepoint were the most common connections available in Japan (WiMax Japan image by Shibuya246, CC BY-ND 2.0)

In seeking to avoid monster costs for global roaming while I was abroad, I disabled that feature on my phone before I left, meaning I was entirely reliant on Wi-Fi to get in contact with friends and family back home.

In Australia, free Wi-Fi is generally available at stores like McDonald's and Starbucks, as well as the ever-reliable Apple. Apart from using my iPad (which is the Wi-Fi model), I have little use for free Wi-Fi within this country because my 3G download quota with Optus for my iPhone is generally sufficient for all my internet needs, so I had not paid too much attention to what was available.

But prior to departing for my trip earlier this month, I thought I should research what internet facilities were available. It was a bleak view to say the least, but I was optimistic because my accommodation provided free internet and the Apple stores were a last resort, so it would all be good.

When I landed in Japan, I found that McDonald's and Starbucks generally didn't have any free Wi-Fi and the stores that did offer Wi-Fi often opted for paid services. The most common I found was BB Mobilepoint, a consortium of telcos that offers connections through hotspots mostly at train stations around Tokyo.

Handy for locals, sure, but not so much for tourists. In Australia, Telstra has a similar program in place with its hotspots.

When I was visiting the sights in Akihabara, the "electric town" in Tokyo that boasts dozens of stores with all the computer and high-tech gear you could ask for, I discovered that most of these stores sold WiMax broadband dongles and it was clear looking at the signs around town that most internet access would be through those.

When I did find places with Wi-Fi (the Wired cafes in Ueno and Shibuya, for example), I would often spend at least an hour or so there, and have a full meal at the same time, so I agree with Darren Greenwood that it is a smart business decision for stores to make the investment in free Wi-Fi.

I could only come to the conclusion that because most of the locals in Japan had existing mobile internet accounts, free Wi-Fi was less of a pressing issue for them, so it wasn't as worthwhile for more businesses to offer free Wi-Fi to its customers. 3G killed the free Wi-Fi star.

After my experience in Japan, I could only think of how it would affect tourists visiting Australia, and I think it would be great to see our telcos team up to offer Wi-Fi services in areas where their 3G networks are lagging, and also invest in offering a free (or cheap) alternative for tourists who lack the ability to access it.

Or the telcos could look at reducing the incredibly outrageous global roaming costs, so we wouldn't need to scrounge for free Wi-Fi. But somehow, I still think that's a long way off.

Topics: Telcos, Networking, Wi-Fi


Armed with a degree in Computer Science and a Masters in Journalism, Josh keeps a close eye on the telecommunications industry, the National Broadband Network, and all the goings on in government IT.

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  • When people can get a stable 10 Mbps to a cellular phone/mobile phone what is the point of 'free (and flaky)' Wi-Fi?

    Expecting McDonald's to foot the bill for Gen Y 3.0 and beyond (putting the current Gen Y at 2.0) is just foolish.

    Heck it (free Wi-Fi) forced every Starbucks to shut down in Australia.
  • It's only by coincidence that I just came across your article Josh - thank you. I'm a resident of Sydney but just so happens, while I have some friends visiting from overseas visiting some local attractions, I'm hanging around and playing the working-tourist and not only trying to get a good internet connection down here near Circular Quay but also somewhere to power my laptop (not as easy as you might think). I have a Telstra 3G card but was having some problems with it - so, after trudging through the streets I finally came across a hotel - but, no free wifi - likewise, the McDonalds was over crowded and there wasn't a power point but yes, free wifi.

    In stark contrast, on frequent trips to the US or Canada I've rarely needed to plan for Internet with the likes of Starbucks and so forth (although less frequent and free in Canada than in the US).

    I'm not sure that 3G will eliminate free wifi - particularly when the telco's in many countries lock down their devices . I think potentially though for the more tech-savvy, a pocket wifi device which can now be purchased in many regions (or bring your own) plugged in with a local sim card might do the trick for many. Despite global roaming costs being so high, the economics of it suggest that there are still enough people willing to pay those exorbitant roaming prices to keep the telco's rubbing their hands together until there is enough clear competition to inevitably make it more affordable to the "little guy".

    Finally, and fortunately I have gotten my local 3G card working (otherwise I wouldn't be posting here today). Now.. where was I..

    James @
  • When visiting my mom in Canada (Hamilton Ontario) I frequent a local coffee shop. Not a chain or anything but close to the Uni and a fair sampling of students in it even though I mainly go in NA Summer. Free WiFi and fast too. Skype back to Aus is great and the coffee and the chilli ain't half bad either!
  • I know tourist one a one hope trip might not think about it but most travelling business men carry a mifi and buy a prepaid data plan in every country they frequent. I have been to the US quite a lot as well and I contrast the view that it's available everywhere... I found it quite hard to find in many places. It's more common around Uni areas. There are many areas in the US without Mobile coverage so Wifi is no where near them!

    3G/4G will and should kill free Wifi. As We move into an always on world I think this will even kill any type of tethered connection. Why connect to a wall when you can get the speed you want anywhere? It all comes down to price at the moment.
  • I have being living in Japan for over 5 years now. Until the recent introduction of FON free wi-fi was very patchy. Part of the problem is that traditionally wifi was more a business tool than a personal one.

    As a consequence companies had no incentives to offer free wifi. Generally people in Japan accept the idea that everything has a price or mobile phone charging (there are coin operated phone chargers everywhere). Also phone companies make no money from it so they have no interest in spreading free wifi. Why have something free when you can profit from it!

    Saying that I think the charges are very low. You can sign up for these services for around 5 dollars a month. Also most hotels will have some sort of free Internet.

    It should be noted that 3G Internet is not very fast. The figures quoted in the press are quite wrong. Maybe in Tokyo you can get a good connection, but else where it's anything from 0.5 to 2 MB/sec. Which is slower that using 3G in the UK. I should know I go home (the UK) every Christmas and use a mifi (pay as you go) to connect to the Internet. Usually I get 2 to 3 MB/sec.
  • I live on the West Coast in the States. Not only is there free WiFi in almost every coffee shop (2 shops within 500 feet of my office and you can go there any time of the day and about 20% of the customers have iPads or laptops and are working), quite a few restaurants are getting on board. And more cities are offering WiFi zones. In Pleasanton, CA, the entire downtown has free WiFi courtesy of the City. I can't speak for the Midwest, but the Coasts are have it covered.