ABB, a Swiss-based multinational specializing in automation technology, has set up a wireless broadband network in Venice, Italy. The contract with the municipality guarantees free internet access for residents and businesses but charges tourists a small fee. The network, which has 200 wireless routers based on Mesh technology, can handle more than 200 GB of data and 40,000 subscribers per day. The system automatically switches between the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies to ensure the necessary signal strength in Venice’s narrow, winding streets. It also includes routers that provide access to passengers of the water taxis on the canals. The project is part of the Free ItaliaWiFi initiative, whose goal is to create a national area of free wireless broadband networks. The project currently has 41 networks, 2,130 Wi-Fi hotspots and 427,000 members in the country.
While we don’t yet know how effective in practice ABB’s Venice initiative will be, the possibility of Wi-Fi coverage spread over an entire city or major areas of a city is provocative and well worth paying attention to. If wireless broadband is available not just in selected hotspots but throughout Venice, local users of mobile devices will be able to make calls and send texts over OTT, surf the web and use apps, without any of this usage counting against their allowances of minutes, SMS and mobile data. In tourist destinations like Venice, this free access to connectivity will be particularly attractive because it eliminates the need for roaming, and presumably the “small fee” for tourists will be far less than the charges associated with any roaming package.
By using a large number of routers spread over a wide area, Mesh technology and an automatic frequency-switching protocol, ABB and the city of Venice are clearly making a serious effort that could take public Wi-Fi to a new level. Such a development would clearly have a substantial impact on the mobile market. Local operators would all be equally affected, and we expect them to respond by making significant changes in the way they price access to their services. In fact, that will be the only way for them—and MNOs worldwide if such broad-based Wi-Fi networks proliferate globally—to meet the challenge.