Roaming Agreements Could Expand the Wi-Fi Renaissance

Thanks to the iPad, expect to see a lot more written about Wi-Fi over the next few days. The still-unattainable device (you can buy one in late March) is already being credited for bringing back the importance of fixed broadband networks, as they provide the backhaul for Wi-Fi networks. Paul Sharma over at the Wall Street Journal writes:

WiFi takeoff will encourage additional investment in this technology, which is cheap to roll out, and will tilt the competitive balance back toward fixed. Looking at the broader picture, if a good urban Wi-Fi network is thrown in for free with a fixed network rental, it’s hard at this stage to tell whether this will represent substitutional or additional telecoms spend.

Last week, I asked our readers what they most wanted as a perk from their ISP, and the most popular answer by far was Wi-Fi access while on the go. Wi-Fi access has become popular with users and with certain Internet Services Providers both as a way to reduce the data deluge on wireless networks but also to reduce churn among subscribers, as smartphones with Wi-Fi become more commonplace (see chart). But signing onto Wi-Fi is kind of  a pain for a consumer who may be obliviously surfing along on a 3G network.

So will ISPs take the consumer love of ubiquitous broadband and carriers’ need for offload to the next level and create the equivalent of roaming agreements for Wi-Fi? Greg Williams, the new SVP of corporate development at Bel Air Networks, thinks they might. Williams, a founder of Wayport, the hotspot aggregator purchased in 2008 by AT&T, recently joined BelAir, a company that builds carrier-grade Wi-Fi equipment for customers including Cablevision (s cvc), Comcast (s cmcsa)  and AT&T (s T).

He wonders if carriers will negotiate with each other and fixed-line ISPs to get access for their wireless subscribers, especially in congested cities such as New York or San Francisco. I’m kind of skeptical, simply because I think most carriers are not experiencing enough pain to want to cut into their data revenue inside big cities, but it’s an intriguing idea. Regardless, BelAir, Meraki, Tropos and Cisco (s csco) will all likely continue to benefit from the buildout of carrier-quality Wi-Fi networks.

Another beneficiary of the iPad/Wi-Fi buildout could be the MiFi personal hotspot from Novatel (s snvtl), which offers users a Wi-Fi signal while using the cellular network for backhaul. I have gotten excited about  personal hot spots before, and Sharma namechecks the MiFi in his article as well. Either way, fixed broadband isn’t in danger of being subjugated by fixed-line broadband anytime soon. Few people will dump their wired networks for wireless given the high cost of mobile data. Rather we’ll demand more seamless coverage without caring what technology we’re using or who provides it.

Image courtesy Flickr user Adventures in Librarianship.