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As smart phones have grown in popularity, cellular network capacity has become increasingly stretched. As a result an alternative is needed to meet bandwidth demand. Hello, Wi-Fi. Today many cell phone carriers have Wi-Fi offload plans to limit the cost of expanding their capacity.

Take AT&T for example, the large carrier has set up approximately 30,000 of its own hotspots in Starbucks, McDonald’s and other public facilities in part to satisfy its subscriber’s media data network demand.

Small carriers however, are taking a more innovative approach to sourcing Wi-Fi capacity, by using a software called Devicescape. San Bruno, CA company Devicescape has identified an untapped opportunity to utilize unprotected public hotspots to expand cellular network capacity. David Fraser, CEO acknowledges this opportunity:

“There’s a huge network that’s been hiding in plain sight… Why not use it?”

How it Works

Devicescape have created a continually updated database of unsecured Wi-Fi routers owned by businesses and organizations. This database of usable hotspots is growing at a rate of 25,000 spots per day. Currently Devicescape has a database of 9 million unprotected hotspots. Devicescape’s software has been sold to mobile carriers such as MetroPCS and Republic Wireless. These carriers then install Devicescape software onto their network’s handsets. When these carrier’s subscribers make calls (unbeknownst to them) in many cases the Devicescape software will automatically detect and connect to a nearby Wi-Fi hotspot with available bandwidth.

Benefits of Devicescape’s Approach

Devicescape offers significant client benefits enabling approximately 40% of their mobile data to utilize Wi-Fi hotspots. While customers won’t necessarily know the difference, Wi-Fi is typically faster and more reliable reducing connection disruptions.

Threats of Devicescape’s Approach

If every carrier adopted this software, many public free Wi-Fi hotspots would get flooded with users, slowing access speeds. This could then lead to greater use of password protection, reducing the number of hotspots available.

There are also legal risks surrounding the Devicescape software. Harold Feld Senior VP of Public Knowledge a digital rights group, acknowledges that while Wi-Fi siphoning is probably not illegal, it is nevertheless a gray area:

“It’s like a limo pulling up in front of a soup kitchen for the free food.”

Devicescape has been careful to measure hotspot traffic to avoid already overburdened Wi-Fi hotspots. Nevertheless, the company has received complaints from some business owners. In response to such complaints Devicescape’s database has been amended accordingly to abandon using those hotspots. So far this response has been sufficient and the company has not yet been sued. 

Mobile data traffic is expected to increase 78% a year through 2016. With increasingly scarce network capacity in busy (city) areas, Wi-Fi can enable cell phone carriers to offer additional bandwidth without substantially raising costs. Time will tell if Devicescape’s approach can be sustainable, but given AT&T’s increasing purchase of Wi-Fi hot spots; the use of Wi-Fi offloading by cellular carriers looks set to continue.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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