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AT&T: Wi-Fi Offloads Just 1% of Mobile Traffic

Wi-Fi is not a panacea for the spectrum crunch, according to AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson.

In an op-ed Monday in the Wall Street Journal, the exec lays out a case for why the U.S. needs to change its wireless spectrum policy, claiming that demand for spectrum will outstrip available supply in 2013.

Notably, Stephenson says only 1% of the traffic generated by AT&T’s mobile users is offloaded via the telco’s 30,000 nationwide Wi-Fi hotspots.

The U.S. “must put precious spectrum to work,” Stephenson argues in the piece. He offers three specific recommendations: The FCC should shorten the time period requiring spectrum holders to deploy service (or sell the spectrum); the commission should expedite spectrum sales; and the government should establish a process for local approvals of wireless buildouts.

Yes, Stephenson has a vested interest in downplaying Wi-Fi in arguing that the FCC needs to quickly move to free up more spectrum for 4G services. After all, AT&T has the potential to make incremental revenue from usage-capped 3G and 4G wireless plans, whereas it doesn’t charge users anything for unlimited Wi-Fi at the local Starbucks or other locations.

But his 1% Wi-Fi offload statistic underscores the fact that even fairly ubiquitous Wi-Fi, from a user’s perspective, is unsuitable for true anytime, anywhere access.

That’s the lens through which we should view the Wi-Fi roaming agreement announced last month by five big MSOs — Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox, Cablevision and Bright House — covering some 50,000 hotspots (see MSOs Get Hot with WiFi Sharing Initiative).

Sure, CableWiFi is a nice feature and will definitely add value to cable’s broadband packages. But it’s absolutely not a replacement for 3G/4G data access today, and Wi-Fi will never be able deliver comparable blanket coverage.

Do you think Wi-Fi offload has a more significant future than Stephenson suggests? Add your comments below.


Programming Note: Don’t miss the fourth annual Multichannel News/B&COnDemand Summit, Wednesday, June 20, in New York City. Scheduled speakers include Comcast’s Matt Strauss, Verizon’s Terry Denson, Rogers’ David Purdy, Charter’s Jeff Bernth, HBO’s Hans Deutmeyer and Music Choice’s Dave Del Beccaro.