The Wireless Broadband Alliance has published a report on the state of the global public Wi-Fi hotspot market compiled by analyst firm Informa. It includes a comprehensive survey of 259 service providers and Wi-Fi vendors.

The report reveals that global public Wi-Fi hotspot numbers are set to grow from 1.3 million in 2011, to 5.8 million by 2015, a 350% increase. The number does not include “community hotspots”, where users share their own Wi-Fi access point with others, which add an additional 4.5 million worldwide.

China Mobile alone plans to deploy a million hotspots and Japan’s KDDI plans to grow its 10,000 Wi-FI hotspots to 100,000 within six months. The survey found that that this growth will be concentrated in three types of location:

The findings also show that 58% of operators – including 47% of mobile operators – believe Wi-Fi hotspots are either very important or crucial to their customers’ experience; offload busy mobile broadband networks; and provide a value-added services platform.

Mobile data growth is a key factor in the rapid build-out of Wi-Fi hotspots. The report highlights that global mobile data traffic is expected to reach 16.84 million terabytes by 2014. Operators plan to manage the impact of this growth primarily through new pricing strategies and Wi-Fi-based offload.

The survey found that smartphone connections to Wi-Fi hotspots will soon overtake laptops globally. Laptops now represent less than half (48%) of the connections to hotspots, smartphones account for 36% and tablets 10%. In APAC and North America smartphones already outnumber laptop connections. While in Latin America, smartphones and laptop connections currently break even. Respondents don’t expect LTE mobile broadband deployments to have an impact on the growth of Wi-Fi hotspots.

The report highlights several barriers to adoption and use of public Wi-Fi hotspots. Cumbersome authentication procedures, costs of access, user discovery of available networks and security were listed. One UK operator recently reported that only 20% of its users access the free public hotspots available to them.

However, the new report highlights that several challenges will be overcome by Next Generation Hotspots (NGH) which are currently being trialed internationally. These allow users to seamlessly roam between cellular and Wi-Fi networks using their mobile handset’s SIM card as authentication, reducing concerns about authentication, network discovery and security. Operators are also reducing the cost of access by increasingly offering public Wi-Fi as part of broadband or cellular packages.

Chris Bruce, Chair of the WBA and CEO, BT Openzone said: “The findings show we are about to enter the golden age of public Wi-Fi with hotspot deployments set to soar. Fixed operators are extending broadband services beyond the home and office, and Wi-Fi is supporting busy mobile broadband networks. Next Generation Hotspot trials are making inroads in the remaining barriers and by cracking the code of a simple, secure user experience hotspot use will continue to soar.”

The results represent 259 public Wi-Fi experts, over half of which were from operators with a wide geographic spread representing all major continents but focused on developed markets. The full report is available from the Wireless Broadband Alliance website.