The reasoning behind these Wi-Fi zones is twofold. First, it affirms the ubiquitous nature of carriers to both the business world and the general public -- the goodwill earned by carriers through Wi-Fi hotspots can lead to customer retention and new deals. Second, and perhaps most importantly, free Wi-Fi provides an offload from busy cellular networks. Rather than watching hours of YouTube videos over 4G, a coffee shop patron could hop on to free Wi-Fi for their streaming media fix, easing the congestion on the carrier network.
But the Wi-Fi of today, both in the corner deli and the boardroom, is a poor parallel to what the service will look like once wireless carriers fully integrate it into product portfolios.
Carrier Wi-Fi will potentially have much more in common with 4G than it does with the Wi-Fi we're currently familiar with. "True" Wi-Fi will offer a full suite of sophisticated backend functions, including billing and priority capabilities, along with smarter end user authentication and support for a heavy user load, providing a far more comprehensive and enterprise class service.
As a pre-emergent service, the business model for carrier Wi-Fi is still very much in flux, but at its core involves offering Wi-Fi as an addendum or add-on to 4G LTE. This allows a carrier to keep both businesses and consumers locked on to its network, reaping the benefits of static user numbers, while being able to offload high traffic from the 4G network to the free Wi-Fi spectrum, not to mention retaining customers, thanks to an overall enhanced experience on its network.
The technology behind carrier Wi-Fi will most likely go far beyond "routers strapped to poles," as the service footprint must match the coverage of (or at least come close to matching) 4G. Essentially, carrier Wi-Fi must cover multiple spectrums and a high-data footprint -- a technical hurdle to overcome if there ever was one. Wi-Fi hardware manufacturers are slowly making progress in this arena by piggybacking off of advancements in distributed antenna systems (DAS) and fiber access, but it's likely that the business plan will outpace the actual technical achievement. [Also see: "Wi-Fi, small cells could disrupt mobile"]