Public Wi-Fi: Europes Magic Broadband Bullet?

Guest commentary: While large-scale Wi-Fi hasn't yet caught the imagination of Europe, a bevy of recent announcements may spark the Continent's interest, writes industry analyst Scott Smith.

LONDON—A few interesting events made last week a great one for Europes Wi-Fi boosters.

Monday started with BT announcing a hefty expansion of its hotspot network in London and across parts of the United Kingdom; and the product-free launch of 3, the U.K. and Europes first 3G operator.

Next, Broadcast Networks and Leisure Link, provider of amusement machines to pubs, announced a 30,000-location network of hotspots across Britain in what is to be called The Cloud. Finally, on Friday, Swisscom announced its acquisition of Megabeam, one of the earliest pan-European WLAN backbone operators offering service in hotels, airports and other public spaces, to build its Swisscom Eurospot business.

In the space of a week, progress in this sector, which had lagged in Europe, achieved the sudden burst of popular interest currently in the United States; Wi-Fi seems to have jumped from dirt track to autobahn.

With the Swisscom move, operators are sure to begin laying their Wi-Fi cards on the table throughout the spring months, especially since interest in 3G operator 3 has been muted. Now a battle of big regional operators is shaping up, reminiscent of what we saw in the mobile phone and data markets in the past three years. Big operator battles of this sort are usually accompanied by infrastructure spending and heavy marketing—two things the marketplace needs in the current economic climate.

The mishmash of business models is likely to be layered, as it has been in the U.S., with direct competition between charging operators business services and a melee of different "free" public models mixed with regional pay offerings.

Theres been much talk of Wi-Fi being a complement to 3G. However, the dearth of users currently clamoring for 3G means large operators may deem packages that bridge GPRS and Wi-Fi an expensive sidetrack, at least for the time being.