Now that the majority of mobile devices have WiFi Internet access capabilities means that traditional networks have a more critical role to play in meeting consumers’ needs.

This is one of the findings of a recent Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group (IBSG) survey that has found that, with the exception of smartphones, Wi-Fi is now the predominant access technology for mobile devices. There has also been an increase in ‘nomadic’ devices like laptops, tablets, and e-readers that almost exclusively connect to the Internet through WiFi.

Key highlights from the research include:

* Entertaining from home – Mobile devices are now increasingly used for entertainment. Almost half of mobile users are consuming all forms of video, music, books, and games on their devices on a regular basis. This trend is expected to increase as devices become more powerful and networks become faster. Interestingly, mobile access no longer exclusively means using devices while on the road. According to the IBSG survey, consumers use their mobile devices for more than 2,5 hours at home on a typical day. People are expecting to increase their home use of mobile devices even more. This shift in where people use their mobile devices has seen an increase in the connection through WiFi. Even the majority of smartphone users are supplementing their mobile connectivity with WiFi. With the exception of coverage, people prefer WiFi over mobile to connect their devices. While WiFi is not able to compete with the ubiquity of cellular network coverage, respondents consider WiFi easier to use and more reliable than mobile.

* Free WiFi access needs to grow – According to the survey a third of mobile users are taking advantage of public WiFi hotspots on a weekly basis. The most popular locations are public outdoors, coffee shops, restaurants, and retail stores. With publicly accessible WiFi evolving so quickly, people are expecting free WiFi access. The rapidly evolving public WiFi business has significantly changed consumers’ expectations. As a result, today very few the users surveyed are actually paying for public WiFi.

* A growing preference for WiFi to mobile for connecting mobile devices – If given a choice between access networks, the survey highlighted that mobile users choose WiFi over mobile across all network attributes, with the obvious exception of coverage. Also worth noting is that across most attributes, one-quarter of consumers see no difference between the two networks. While WiFi cannot compete with the now nearly ubiquitous coverage of cellular networks, it is remarkable that consumers consider WiFi easier to use and more reliable than mobile. And, despite the technical superiority of cellular mobility in the area of security, people clearly do not make this distinction. As is often the case with technology, there seems to be a huge gap between the technical reality and user perception across the key distinguishing attributes of the two access networks.

* The “New Mobile” = WiFi + Mobile – The results of the Cisco IBSG survey seem to indicate that the market is on the verge of a “New Mobile” paradigm – one in which WiFi and mobile networks are seamlessly integrated and indistinguishable in the mobile users’ mind. Almost 60% of consumers surveyed were “somewhat” or “very” interested in a proposed offer that provides unlimited data across combined access networks for a flat monthly fee. The biggest perceived benefits were lower overall costs and unlimited data, signalling the end of uncertainty about overage charges. However, more than one-quarter of people liked the location flexibility, reliability, and seamless transfer between networks that this proposition offered.

The survey also highlighted key considerations, implications and potential strategies for service providers to capture WiFi opportunities in South Africa:

* Offering free public WiFi access with a home broadband subscription will become an important factor in how service providers in South Africa can capture WiFi business opportunities to retain existing customers and attract new ones. In South Africa, hotspot visitors still usually have to pay to surf, and while some hotspots offer free access, the service is still often erratic because they have to find ways to manage the high bandwidth cost.

* Pressing need to incorporate WiFi as an integral part of portfolio. As the history demonstrates, South Africa will follow the WiFi usage trend in the US subsequently, in order to compete effectively South African service providers will need to incorporate WiFi as an integral part of their portfolio utilising pricing, marketing, and new technological solutions to create compelling and integrated offers and solutions of value to mobile users.

* Targeting WiFi use in the home by creating solutions and incentives, service providers in South Africa can encourage users to offload mobile traffic at home, while retaining the ability to provide a unique and differentiated customer experience.

* Deliver on the New Mobile. Align network architectures and deploy appropriate technologies to deliver a seamless, integrated mobile WiFi user experience. As demand for mobile devices and network connectivity continues to grow in South Africa, both WiFi and traditional mobile networks will be critical to meeting the needs of mobility-enabled consumers.

Stuart Taylor, director of the  Cisco IBSG Service Provider Practice, comments: “As demand for mobile devices and network connectivity continues to grow, both WiFi and traditional mobile networks will be critical to meeting the needs of mobility-enabled consumers. In South Africa as well as globally, Service Providers are in an enviable position of being able to successfully integrate these networks and the experience of their customers to provide what the market wants: New Mobile.”

Craig Zeeman, director: sales at Cisco South Africa, adds: “One of the mandates of the South African government is to provide its citizens with universal access to broadband connectivity. This has already resulted in an increase of mobile devices in the country putting service providers and mobile operators in the ideal position to take advantage of the high demand for smartphones, tablets, and other connected devices that generate a significant amount of mobile data.”