Devicescape CEO Puts Shared WiFi in Spotlight

‘Crowdsharing’ amenity hotspots is way to better connections for us all, according to Devicescape CEO Dave Fraser

The business and consumer delights of the internet have made it increasingly hard for us to leave our devices alone and the real-time broadband world has made many of us (often willing) slaves to modern communications. When we can’t get “on the grid” or are frustrated by poor links, we get anxious. Devicescape is a company that occupies an interesting niche here: boosting broadband access through stitching together WiFi signals so that we can all get online, even in tricky conditions.

“Devicescape has a rather unusual mission,” says its Scottish-born CEO, David Fraser, speaking down the line from the company’s offices near San Francisco airport. “We’re trying to assemble a massive network that makes broadband available across the world. We’re working in conjunction with cellular to deliver a better user experience, especially in areas where cellular connectivity is weak or economically unviable.”

Call it network scavenging or, the term Fraser prefers, ‘crowdsharing’: Devicescape uses public amenity WiFi that’s typically provided free of charge for guests and visitors to hotels, bars, coffee shops and other places. Fraser says it’s capitalising on an “exploding, chaotic world to make something that feels like a single network”.

Founded in 2005, the company’s initial business was in developing the underlying software used in PCs to find and connect to hotspots. It has effectively repurposed and extended that technology to make these hotspots immediately available for use, even alerting users to switch on WiFi rather than running up bills on cellular tariffs. (The company’s data tells it that 30% of users never set up smartphones to use home WiFi.) In return for providing access, the organisations running the hotspots get a way to talk to customers and data that helps them better understand guests’ behaviour.

That approach has led to some privacy and security concerns, Fraser acknowledges, but he believes that password protection and encryption technologies make those concerns “quite overblown”.

“We’re connecting people to networks that are designed for them to connect to. We’re facilitating a desired connection and we reach out to network owners via engagement software that gives [amenity hotspot owners] analytics and a marketing platform. I guess [the security angle] makes for an interesting story but most consumers don’t care.”

Perhaps in part because of perceptions, Devicescape has so far proven a slow burn. It won its first carrier customer, MetroPCS, in 2010 but then there was a hiatus until a further 10 signed up in 2013, including its first European telco in Virgin.

“It looks like the market has warmed up in the last two years,” Fraser says. “It’s warmed up to WiFi too, and the fact that, by and large, carriers are only going to be able to solve connectivity issues by embracing both [cellular and WiFi] forms.”

Cashflow positive and with 50 employees, Devicescape has a platform for growth but Fraser, who once worked in the back office of the once-famous Glasgow shipyards, believes the big launch for its market is just about to take place. He expects blue-chips to get on board soon and for that to have a beneficial knock-on effect because “to get tier-ones, you’ve got to have won tier-ones”.

It “seems pretty obvious” to him that the mobile carriers should grasp “this massive opportunity” and those that don’t could be hurt by a “clash of the titans” where internet giants move further into the communications space.

“The hunger to get people connected to internet services is enormous and whether you’re taking about the emerging world or developed world, it’s the same thing. If it’s not the carriers [satisfying that demand], it will be the internet companies.”

He can even see a future where the tables are turned and digital communications becomes a case of “cellular on-load not WiFi offload”, pointing to Republic Wireless as an example of a company going “WiFi first and cell second”. The segment is changing very rapidly and the future is wide open.


Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect