Everyone bullish on Wi-Fi – with a few big exceptions

The world will have 5.8 million Wi-Fi hotspots by 2015, up from 1.3 million today, according to a new report from the Wireless Broadband Alliance and Informa Telecoms & Media. The 350-percent predicted increase in hotspots is a testament to the smartphone, which is gobbling up hotspot capacity originally intended for laptops and driving new roll outs. But before you dream of ubiquitous Wi-Fi, it seems not all operators are sold on the idea.

The Alliance’s survey of 259 service providers found that just 47 percent of mobile operators believe that Wi-Fi hotspots are either very important or crucial to enhancing their customers’ mobile data experience, to offloading overtaxed 3G and 4G networks or to providing a jumping-off point for new services. The report concludes this is a positive, revealing that operators are no longer threatened by Wi-Fi and are actively embracing it. But if Wi-Fi is so important to mobile broadband networks of the future, why isn’t the percentage closer to 100 — or at least over 50?

The Wi-Fi-loving operators are obvious. Japan’s KDDI plans to deploy a hotspot network of 100,000 access points, giving it a hotspot for every 320 customers. China Telecom (s CHA) plans to deploy a million of them by the end of 2012. In the U.S., AT&T has never met a hotspot it didn’t like. For years, AT&T (s T) has been using its network of 27,000 Wi-Fi connected coffee shops, restaurants and hotels to relieve pressure from the iPhone (s aapl) on its high-speed packet access (HSPA) network. It has also begun to build high-capacity Wi-Fi “hot zones” in heavily trafficked outdoor areas like New York’s Times Square and in public parks.

Not every operator, however, sees Wi-Fi as the answer to its prayers. Verizon Wireless (s VZ) is deploying its own hotspots in stadiums and other big gathering spots, but it’s doing so grudgingly. Verizon Communications CTO Tony Melone has said that while Verizon wants to take advantage of the abundance of Wi-Fi in its customers’ homes for offload, it views public hotspots as a means of solving specific capacity issues in a few problematic areas. For instance, Verizon plans to use hotspots at sports and concert venues where a few times a week thousands of customers converge and simultaneously access the data network.

“We won’t use it ubiquitously to cover up flaws and capacity limitations,” Melone said, speaking at a TIA conference in May. “In my mind it’s much more effective to invest in your 3G and 4G environments than rely on Wi-Fi.”

Another reason some operators may be hesitating on Wi-Fi is that many of the current public hotspot technologies are still half-baked for the purposes of carrier offload. In their study, the WBA and Informa highlighted the U.K.’s O2 (s TEF), which is deploying 15,000 hotspots through 2013. O2, however, has reported that only 20 percent of customers with Wi-Fi connectivity in their devices access its current network of hotspots provided by aggregators. Wi-Fi awareness is high in the U.K., as is customer awareness of O2’s free hotspot service launched in 2008. But the hand-off from cellular to Wi-Fi network isn’t automatic.

Customers must log in to each access point, creating a huge barrier for any customer wanting to do a quick email check or tweet a photo. New SIM authentication technologies are integrating Wi-Fi more fully into the mobile broadband network. Once that hand-off is seamless, maybe the Wi-Fi fence sitters among the operators will become more enthusiastic about the technology.