iPass CEO Says Mobile Data Is No Substitute For Wi-Fi

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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iPass CEO Evan Kaplan says not even falling roaming rates can make mobile data a better alternative to Wi-Fi for business travellers

iPass CEO Evan Kaplan thinks Wi-Fi will become increasingly important as demand for mobile data grows. He believes his company is well placed to take advantage of the trend, despite an increasing number of free hotspots and falling roaming charges.

Kaplan, who freely admits iPass looked like a “crap business” when he joined in 2009, claims to have turned the company around to the point where it can take the lead in what he describes as a new age of Wi-Fi.

The most recent development in this recovery is the launch of the cloud-based ‘Business Traveller 2.0’, which aims to simplify the process of accessing 2.7 million free and paid-for hotspots in more than 120 countries.

The service is targeted at large enterprises, with iPass taking care of end-user management and billing, and promising to reduce the cost of connectivity bills for business travellers by half.

Chaotic industry

Evan Kaplan iPass CEO“We buy more Wi-Fi and sell more Wi-Fi than anyone else,” Kaplan tells TechWeekEurope, adding that it is a far cry from five years ago when it looked like public Wi-Fi was going to die.

The situation changed thanks to increased smartphone adoption, the emergence of the tablet and increased strain on mobile networks, which resulted in an expanding Wi-Fi market.

He says the industry has grown “organically” with business owners determining which provider to use for their wireless networks, resulting in a “chaotic ecosystem” of vastly differing quality levels and the impossibility of a seamless experience across different hotspots.

This has created an opening for iPass, since Business Traveller 2.0 automates the process of logging in and uses a repository of information derived from analytics and user comments to tell customers which hotspots are best for certain activities. iPass’ hotspot finder can be downloaded for offline use, meaning that users don’t even have to access a cellular network to discover this information.

“The core behind is the idea that we’re automating big parts of the experience,” he says. “We recognise that the Wi-Fi ecosystem is really messy. What we’ve done is try to automate. We’ve put in in-app messaging and try to use our data to try and coach the user to tell them what they have. It’s really about making the business travel experience better through investment in big data and automation.”

Free versus paid

Kaplan says the UK has one of the “best Wi-Fi footprints in the world” thanks to large scale deployments by BT, The Cloud and O2, but these often rely on subscriptions, advertising or cumbersome registration processes.

He agrees that people are becoming increasingly more aware of where to find free Wi-Fi and says such hotspots will continue to be added to the iPass network. iPass aims to make it easy to use free connections, but also premium hotspots when the need arises.

For example, foreign travellers won’t necessarily have access to BT Wi-Fi, while hotels often offer different speeds for their free and premium services. Additionally, in countries such as China or Japan, the language barrier can be a problem.

Threat roaming

In addition to this ease of use, one of the main advantages of iPass is that it reduces the cost of using data abroad, but with roaming charges set to be abolished within the European Union by 2016 and charges for other countries falling all the time, does Kaplan feel threatened?

“In Europe, in 2016, we expect there to be free roaming,” he replies. “The carriers are going to respond, as that’s a huge profit centre for them. They have to charge somewhere. You’re going to use more Wi-Fi.”

Kaplan says mobile data services are not an alternative for many of its users, especially those who feel restricted by data allowances. He compares Europe to the US, where roaming charges were abolished 12 years ago, and where 4G penetration is 50 percent but Wi-Fi use is increasing. However mobile data services are considerably more expensive than in the UK, where strong competition keeps prices down.

Wi-Fi is now cool

BT WifiHe claims operators around the world that don’t have a mobile network are creating an extensive Wi-Fi presence and filling in the gaps with a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO). BT could imitate the second part of this strategy with its 2.6GHz spectrum in urban areas and its MVNO partnership with EE.

“BT looks cooler than Vodafone to the global world now,” he says, noting the latter’s investment in fixed networks to justify his point. “Mobile estate only is bad news.

“If you’re Comcast and you have ten million footprint around the world and you build out in cities, you’re eight tenths of the way to having a mobile experience. Fill that in with a little MVNO and you can price that dramatically differently than the guys who are all cellular.”

While operators adapt to new business models and regulatory changes, Kapan expects a number of competitors to join iPass in its market as the “new style of Wi-Fi” takes off. However he admits there a number of issues that must be overcome and predicts the way that iPass monetises its service will be different in five years’ time.

“If Wi-Fi is going to be the global alternative network, it needs to work better than it does today,” he declares.

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