Over the weekend I spent a little time digging into O2's plans to offer a free citywide WiFi blanket across London. As any regular readers of the blog will know, I'm a huge supporter of WiFi blankets. In 2011 we saw some encouraging signs that rollouts were starting to grow in size and frequency. New York had a number of interesting projects deployed and some European cities also moved forward with rollouts in parks and other public places.

If successful, O2's network will be a first for the U.K. and for Europe and will hopefully stimulate similar developments in other cities. There can be no question that the U.K. needs to start driving forward with mobile connectivity. However, while I was reading about this project, I was reminded of an article in Gigaom from last year. This article discussed whether our WiFi expectations are simply too high and misaligned with service providers' plans.

What's striking about the Gigaom article is the apparent discord between users and service providers. Sure, nothing new you may be thinking, but let's look at the figures. According to a report from Devicescape, over 83% of users believe that service providers should be offering some form of free WiFi access as part of mobile subscriptions. This contrasts with figures from the Wireless Broadband Alliance that shows only 47% of service providers believe WiFi offload to be an important part of their mobile strategy. The difference in figures here is huge. The key question is how do we all move forward together?

Unfortunately, I'm not sure we'll see any form of structured approach to developing WiFi blankets anytime soon. Looking at London, there are already a number of small trials being run across the city to offer some form of free connectivity. Just look at Nokia's offering from 2011 to see this in action. What's needed is a collaborative approach. One need only look at cable providers in New York to see what’s possible here. But are we likely to see this model replicated elsewhere. Do service providers have it in their DNA to collaborate?

I’m sure service providers will be watching O2’s success here before taking any competitive measures. However, as I highlighted in an earlier post, it’s clear that we’re entering an age of WiFi connectivity. People expect access to data wherever and whenever and with poor coverage and data caps continuing to restrict people's mobile data usage, especially in the U.K., WiFi offloading is the next logical step. It will be interesting to see which service providers accept the challenge and begin to offer compelling WiFi packages in their tariffs.

What do you think to O2’s plans? Do we expect too much from WiFi? Should WiFi offload be a part of every service providers’ mobile strategy? Let me know what you think.