The Wi-Fi Sharing Economy

Orion WiFi allows public venues to sell Wi-Fi capacity to operators

This week, Area 120, Google’s in-house incubator, announced a platform called Orion WiFi. Orion WiFi enables owners of Wi-Fi hot spots at public venues such as stadiums, grocery stores and malls to sell Wi-Fi capacity to wireless operators, allowing traffic to be offloaded from cellular access points.

Google describes this as a win-win situation for operators and owners of public places, allowing enterprise-grade Wi-Fi networks to become revenue-generating infrastructures. Raj Gajwani, director of the Area 120 product incubator, described Orion Wi-Fi as an Airbnb for hot spots. In other words, Wi-Fi hot spots are becoming part of the sharing economy.

Google Fi and Republic Wireless are among the first cellular carriers to use this new technology, but the platform’s success hinges on other mobile network operators and makers of Wi-Fi equipment joining the platform. To spark interest in Orion WiFi, Wi-Fi equipment manufacturers Cisco, CommScope (through its Ruckus brand) and Juniper Mist have agreed to support the platform, making it easier for customers buying their products to switch on Orion WiFi capabilities.

On the surface, there’s solid logic here. This type of platform allows wireless operators to better serve customers, particularly during peak demand. But this must work without any friction, and be invisible to users. And of course, the economics must work for operators, which will have to trust that Orion WiFi access is up to its standards.

Orion WiFi isn’t the first product to try to create a market for Wi-Fi roaming in multiple markets and locations. Previous efforts include iPass, which provided Wi-Fi access to corporate customers. In Europe, Fon has a network of more than 20 million Wi-Fi hot spots. Furthermore, US cable companies Comcast and Spectrum offer mobile services based on a Wi-Fi-first architecture using millions of their own Wi-Fi hot spots as well as those of their broadband subscribers, essentially creating a crowd-sourced wireless network. It’s not clear how much wireless mobile traffic these cable companies are able to offload onto Wi-Fi and away from their cellular wholesale partner Verizon.

Orion WiFi is launching at a time when the 5G push by US carriers is about to reach fever pitch, and unlimited data subscriptions are becoming common. This will create a state of induced demand, that is, improvements in infrastructure will organically generate more need for traffic. If 5G networks enable new uses for mobile data, there will certainly be times when even next-generation networks can’t handle the traffic.

To become a truly sustainable business model, Orion WiFi will need to attract one or more of the major three wireless carriers in the US to generate a reliable cash flow for owners of hot spots. Google certainly has channels of communication into these service providers, but they will be cautious after spending big on new spectrum and building out their networks.