"Wi-Fi offloading" has been a popular buzzword for mobile carriers worried about crowded data networks, but major operators in the United States haven't made a serious rollout of Wi-Fi hotspots. That's not the case in Europe where mobile carriers face lower margins and costly infrastructure upgrades, and German carrier Deutsche Telekom plans to expand its Wi-Fi network across the country as one way to relieve network congestion. The carrier has announced a new partnership with Fon, a crowdsourced Wi-Fi hotspot provider, that will add more than 12,000 of Fon's hotspots across Germany to Deutsche Telekom's network — and that's just a start. The company's outgoing CEO, René Obermann, says that "by 2016, we want to provide nationwide WLAN To Go at more than 2.5 million additional hotspots." That's roughly one hotspot for every 33 German citizens.
US mobile operators have toyed with Wi-Fi offloading as a way to solve the oft-cited "spectrum crunch," but neither AT&T or Verizon has deployed anything like the kind of widespread coverage that Deutsche Telekom promises by 2016. Despite its messaging on spectrum scarcity, Verizon has stated that it doesn't need to offload to Wi-Fi given its privileged spectrum position and nationwide LTE coverage. Unlike Verizon, rival AT&T has touted its hotspot availability, saying that its customers are "active users" of Wi-Fi service, but the company only provides roughly 400,000 hotspots worldwide spread between over 100 countries (compare that to Fon's claim of over 7.7 million hotspots worldwide). Of course, Fon's approach is a bit different than AT&T's; the service requires users to share their home Wi-Fi with other users, creating a mesh of wireless coverage that would otherwise be private.
There's no guarantee Deutsche Telekom will fulfill its promise, but if it does, it could be an instructional model for carriers in other markets — especially if mobile broadband demand continues to balloon as carriers and organizations like the FCC have predicted. The joint initiative between Deutsche Telekom and Fon will launch this summer in Germany, and will hit the carrier's other markets in Greece, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Hungary later this year. To meet its longer-term goal, Deutsche Telekom plans to invest $30 billion in its network by 2016.