AT&T looks to Wi-Fi for international roaming

AT&T’s addition of Boingo Wireless Wi-Fi hotspots to its international roaming coverage may point toward the future of mobile data across borders.

The deal that the companies announced on Tuesday was fairly modest, though it could make a big difference for data-starved travelers who go to airports that are included in the arrangement. Subscribers to the 300MB or 800MB AT&T Data Global Add-On package will get to use 1GB of data per month on Wi-Fi networks that Boingo Wireless operates in 30 international airports around the world. The carrier is throwing in that access for free with the two data roaming plans, which cost $60 and $120 per month, respectively, on top of a regular monthly plan.

In the big picture of international travel, 30 airports is a small footprint, though it includes the main airports in Beijing, Rome, Tokyo and other major destinations. Coverage will also expand throughout this year, according to Boingo. However, Wi-Fi may play a big role in international roaming for all carriers as subscribers’ demand for access grows, industry analysts say.

Wi-Fi is typically less expensive than cellular networks for covering dense areas with high speed because it runs on unlicensed radio spectrum. As long as there are enough users within the relatively short range of an access point, Wi-Fi is an economical way to give users more capacity. Many carriers, including AT&T in the U.S., have invested heavily in this technique by building their own hotspots.

Mobile users want to keep using apps and the Internet the same way when they visit other countries, but international data roaming plans tend to be expensive and come with small allocations of data. As a result, most travelers seek out whatever Wi-Fi networks they can find while minimizing cellular data use or avoiding it altogether.

“The reality is that the alternatives are already there, they’re just a little bit harder to find at the moment,” said Tolaga Research analyst Phil Marshall.

Through partnerships like the one between AT&T and Boingo, carriers can offer to help their subscribers find and join Wi-Fi networks, Marshall said.

Emerging technologies for roaming among Wi-Fi hotspots, and later between cellular and Wi-Fi networks, should make it even easier for travelers to get on Wi-Fi networks, Marshall said. Boingo and AT&T are already participating in trials of one of those systems, called Next Generation Hotspot, through the Wireless Broadband Alliance. The ultimate aim of those developments is to let users roam onto a Wi-Fi network with no effort of their own, the same as roaming onto a cell network.

If access to overseas Wi-Fi networks becomes automatic, it will add even more value to what subscribers get from their mobile carrier, Marshall said.

“You can see a scenario where they will try and lock up these kinds of agreements to be able to create that type of user experience,” Marshall said. In this pursuit, “AT&T is further along than the other operators in the U.S.,” he said.

Under the partnership, AT&T also has the right to include Boingo’s U.S. hotspots in its data plans if it chooses, said Christian Gunning, Boingo’s vice president of corporate communications.

The partnership will also benefit subscribers to Boingo’s paid Wi-Fi service, which gets users onto thousands of Wi-Fi hotspots in stores, hotels, restaurants and other areas. Those subscribers will now be able to use AT&T’s hotspots in the U.S., which cover Home Depot stores, FedEx locations, and other retail and dining destinations, Gunning said. That will increase the number of paid hotspots that Boingo subscribers can use in the U.S. from about 10,000 to about 15,000, and make it easier for them to get onto free networks operated by AT&T, such as at Starbucks and McDonald’s, he said.

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