Free Wi-Fi Hotspots Outnumber Paid Wi-Fi in the U.S. Says JiWire

The number of free wireless hotspots in the U.S. outnumber paid Wi-Fi locations for the first time, with 55.1 percent of public Wi-Fi locations available at no charge, according to a report from JiWire, an advertising company that focuses marketing specifically through Wi-Fi networks. Driving growth on the supply side are carrier and cable implementations of free hotspots, along with retailers like Sam’s Club (s wmt) finding value-add and location-based services to pair with traditional brick-and-mortar advertising.

JiWire’s Insights report for the second quarter of 2010 show that growth of free Wi-Fi isn’t a U.S.-only phenomenon. Worldwide, seven of the top ten countries ranked by the number of public hotspots added locations, with France taking the lead in growth. France took the number three spot from the UK in terms of total hotspots by boosting its total number of public hotspots 12.8 percent this past quarter. JiWire’s data indicates that roughly one of every four Wi-Fi networks around the world is now free, a 6.2 percent jump from the prior quarter, and 20 percent higher than a year ago. While the data is specific to JiWire’s network, it points to a bigger general trend.

The growth of free hotspots will bring eventual challenges for Wi-Fi networks such as Boingo Wireless, which offer monthly and pay-as-you-go wireless access for a fee. Retailers such as Starbucks (s sbux), Barnes and Noble (s bks), and McDonald’s (s mcd) have offered or recently moved to a free Wi-Fi model, causing me to consider canceling my own $9.99 monthly Boingo account. I always considered the small fee to be cheap insurance as a backup to the Verizon MiFi (s vz) I carry, but now it’s simply easier drive up the street for a free network. And in some cases, such as with the included premium content from Starbucks’ Wi-Fi, there’s a value-add to the free web access. Without truly ubiquitous free Wi-Fi, paid network access still has a home, but consumers appear happy to surf for free every chance they get.

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