Today Engadget reported that Free WiFi provider admits to making up 90 percent of its revenues. The company, Gowex, runs networks in 85 cities around the world (according to company WWW pages) offices in Madrid, Paris, London, Buenos Aires and Shanghai. The company claimed that it had developed a sustainable business model for free Wi-Fi based on the idea that company makes its revenues from partnerships with local governments, carriers with Wi-Fi offloading and from premium fees (i.e. selling premium user accounts).
Some may view this as a proof that Gowex's business idea and model did not work, but I would not claim that without looking into if they managed to get any revenues at all. Running company badly and falsifying revenues and accounting are very different things from the actual business idea and model not working. I actually think that those ideas from where Gowex planned to get revenues are valid ones and they seem to have made real roaming deals with roaming brokers such as iPass, Boingo etc. These revenues could then be used to subsidise the service costs of running WiFi networks or related services, but naturally the company should get more revenues from the service it provides than the costs of producing it. And that is actually why I do not believe Free Wi-Fi exists.
The Free Wi-Fi is an illusion for consumers. Somebody always ends up with the bill. It may be the company, organisation or city providing or buying the Free Wi-Fi service out of hospitability. It may be an airport or a shopping mall deploying or buying a service for tracking customer movements or web surfing, but like many other free Internet services, Free Wi-Fi is not really free. You as a consumer may think that with Free Wi-Fi that you are still customer, but the reality is that the one providing and paying for Free Wi-Fi service, needs to get enough benefits and/or revenue from providing the free service to you and their benefit maybe the data about you.
Where Gowex was on a right is that providing Wi-Fi for free needs to be sustainable. The Wi-Fi network service needs to provide so much benefits for the one paying for it, that the payer is willing to cover the costs of running, maintaining and developing the network. Too often in many hospitability guest networks (hotel/conference Wi-Fi, company guest Wi-Fi) the deployed network may serve its users when it was first deployed, but the development of it (Internet bandwidth capacity, better radios) is neglected until enough users are complaining about it. In city-wide Wi-Fi networks similar kind of problems occur, when city-wide Wi-Fi is setup with development project money from government or EU without any plan how to cover the costs after the development project has ended.
Sustainable Wi-Fi networks should be planned so that they can be maintained and even developed with the revenues coming from organisations and companies benefitting from the network service, or from something measurable the network provides. There even exists a successful example of this kind of sustainable global Wi-Fi network concept -- eduroam (*).
In eduroam, universities, research institutions, government organisations and even cities have seen the benefits of joining their existing Wi-Fi networks via federated RADIUS authentication and providing this way a free Wi-Fi around the world for researchers, teachers and students. Every organisation deploys, maintains and develops their own network service with their own funding and shares it with the other eduroam organisations. There is no single vendor, service provider or organisation controlling anything. Instead, every vendor, service provider or organisation which is ready to fulfil the open requirements and standard interfaces is welcome to join or provide equipment or services to other eduroam organisations. There are not a lot of revenues or profits moved around, just normal network and authentication business for companies, but the benefits are clear for participants to justify the costs of basically running the Wi-Fi networks, which they are going to do anyway.
eduroam is real, sustainable Wi-Fi and I am hoping that we (Arch Red and Open System Consultants) may help in bringing its benefits also to wider audience in a very near future. eduroam itself still limits its use to universities and research organisations and networks and cannot unfortunately yet be used as a common global concept to provide sustainable Wi-Fi for all.
* eduroam is a registered trademark of TERENA. Arch Red and Open System Consultants are independent of TERENA".