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Telkom Mobile heats up Wi-Fi war

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Telkom Mobile plans to roll out 4 000 Wi-Fi hotspots across South Africa with free access to customers. The move may well ignite a Wi-Fi war, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Telkom Mobile announced yesterday that it will offer free Wi-Fi access to all South Africans at more than 1 500 Wi-Fi hotspots for the next three months. Thereafter, it will give free Wi-Fi access to its own customers.

As important as the free Wi-Fi is the number of hotspots it intends to roll out: a total of 4 000. These are sites that are already signed up, meaning they will shortly be in operation.

That effectively doubles the number of public Wi-Fi hotspots in South Africa. Telkom Mobile’s biggest competitors for hotspot heat are WirelessG, which claims 2 000 ‚”integrated hotspots‚”, and AlwaysOn, which says it has more than 1 150 hotspot locations. The cheeky upstart Skyrove says it has 600 hotspots. Add a few smaller networks with a clutch of access points each, and South Africa will have around 8 000 hotspots.

With 50% market share, Telkom Mobile fully intends using the hotspots to attract users to its services and provide services to the hotspot hosts.

‚”It’s a land grab,‚” says Amit Maharaj, senior managing executive for Telkom Mobile. ‚”We went out to secure hotspots as fast as possible. Once you’re entrenched with a venue, you can start doing things like landing pages for them, showing their menu, making loyalty offers, and things that can spin off from this offering.‚”

During a promotional period, until 15 December 2013, any member of the public will be given up to 60 minutes a day free access to all Telkom Mobile hotspots, as long as they SMS their e-mail address and the word ‚”free‚” to an SMS shortcode number, 32707. The cost of the SMS is R1, which is the only charge.

Telkom Mobile pre-paid customers will be given free access based on the amount with which they top up their accounts: A R50-R99 recharge earns 2GB of data over a 7-day period: a top-up of R100 or more earns 10GB of data to be used over the next 30 days.

A test of several Telkom Mobile hotspots this week showed it delivering download speeds above 14Mbps. Maharaj says that Telkom Mobile has put an emphasis on quality access, with ADSL being used as backhaul for stand-alone venues and ‚”mom and pop‚” outlets, while the three major airports and several large malls are connected by fibre.

‚”Maximum backhaul speeds range from 4Mbps to 10Mpbs for a mom and pop store or a Nando’s to 40Mbps in malls and airports, so theres a whole range of environments. We don’t throttle speeds. We put in high capacity access points as well, not cheap kit. All the hotspots are remotely monitored so we know when an access point is down and dispatch a technician. All the hotspots are integrated into our network: it’s not just a typical free Wi-Fi ADSL spot.‚”

For a Telkom Mobile subscriber, after the subscriber has connected for the first time, the hotspots take precedence over 3G, linking automatically to the hotspot when the user is in range, and saving on use of 3G bundles.

Maharaj acknowledges this is a highly strategic move.

‚”It allows us to give customers a lot of value for money without compromising our network for guys who are dependent on our network. And it’s really leveraging the Telkom infrastructure to the maximum, because the ADSL ports are there, fibre is there, so the incremental cost of providing the service is small. And the value is huge.‚”

Telkom contract subscribers will also be given a free data allowance of up to 10GB a month, depending on how much they spend on their contracts.

WirelessG will be hard-pressed to compete with the Telkom offering, although it’s business model is a little different, often selling the service to hospitality establishments, which then provide it fee to their guests. Vodacom has a 28% share in WirelessG, but earlier this year pulled out of a deal to resell WirelessG Wi-Fi access to its own customers.

Meanwhile, WirelessG’s Internet Service Provider division, G-Connect, entered an agreement with Nashua Mobile for the latter to sell a 3GB/month Wi-Fi package for R39 a month. This was regarded as the best Wi-Fi deal on the market prior to the Telkom Mobile announcement. Ironically, G-Connect also resells Telkom ADSL services.

AlwaysOn, which has partnerships with MWEB and Internet Solution, respectively the country’s largest consumer and business ISPs, appears to be more widely accessible than WirelessG, despite claiming a lower number of hotspots.

Regardless of the numbers, though, both AlwaysOn and WirelessG are now likely to speed up their pace of customer acquisition in response to the Telkom Mobile announcement.

Before long, hotspot hunters can expect the same kind of turf war in the Wi-Fi space that has led to price wars in mobile broadband.

* Visit http://www.telkommobile.com/wifilocations to locate Telkom Mobile Wi-Fi hotspots.

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