The stated and actual Wi-Fi business cases have changed over the last decade and a half. It might be hard to imagine now, but there was serious talk about Wi-Fi competing with mobile broadband networks. With some exceptions, Wi-Fi then became an amenity for buyers of telco and cable fixed broadband service.

As mobile data consumption has grown, the emphasis has shifted in substantial part to data offload. One recent example is France’s “Free Mobile,” which has launched a network of four million hotspots its smart phone customers can use, creating what is billed as the world’s largest carrier-run mobile data offload network.

In a next iteration, it will be easier for smart phones, tablets and other devices to switch automatically between a mobile network and a compatible Wi-Fi hotspot, without manual user intervention.

The point is that public Wi-Fi networks have, in many instances, become part of the fabric used by a fixed or a mobile service provider network, with a business case similar to that of the other networks themselves.

Free’s Wi-Fi network originally was built as an amenity for Illiad’s fixed network customers (Illiad owns Free).

So we now come full circle. Wi-Fi hotspots once were deemed competition for mobile networks. Now Wi-Fi hotspot networks are part of the mobile broadband network, and the primary business case is offloading demand from the mobile networks. And the impact is substantial. Petabytes of traffic are capable of offload operations.

That makes sense because the proportion of in-building mobile data consumption is markedly higher than that of consumption in outdoor public places or while users are in motion. And the trend is even more pronounced for tablets, which tend to be used heavily inside user homes and offices, rather than “in motion.”

And Wi-Fi works in several ways. Public hotspots can shift demand from the mobile network to the fixed network. In the home, Wi-Fi shifts usage to the consumer’s own network, while at work Wi-Fi shifts usage to the business fixed network. And the amount of usage that can be shifted is quite significant.

Some studies have suggested that tablet devices are used mostly inside the home, in fact up to 80 percent of total usage.

A study by Millennial Media found that at least 40 percent of smart phone use occurs inside a user’s home.

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