Sean O’Mahoney, CEO FatPort

At the beginning of the year Canadians thought hotspots were trendy bars.

Today the word means cafes, hotels, airports, hospitals as well as trendy bars offering wireless Internet connectivity.

Credit for the explosion in WiFi identity in large part goes to pioneer public hotspot providers

like Vancouver’s FatPort, Ottawa’s BoldStreet, Toronto’s Spotnik and Hotspotz, aided by the recent availability of WiFi-equipped mobile devices.

The business models vary (Hotspotz are free but users have to watch an ad, the others charge) and it isn’t clear which will survive. As Sean O’Mahony, Fatport CEO said earlier this year, “”The question I’m asked is where is the money in (public) WiFi? Well, there isn’t any.””

Still, in August the company had 85 locations and predicted it will have 200 by the end of the year.

And it’s been imaginative in pricing: The latest is a $300 all-you-can-use annual plan. It’s even done a deal to offer WiFi service for an extra $1 a month to a subscribers’ cable bill.

Every month more hotspots open: Spotnik (backed in part by Telus Mobility) has signed up Timothy’s cafes, BoldStreet is in Denny’s restaurants, FatPort is being tested in hospitals.

But the industry may see a leap in interest if wireless carriers can agree to deliver a promised roaming agreement, which would give paying users even more location choices.

Channel models are also changing. Spotnik co-CEO Murray McCaig said over the summer he hopes to switch from signing up customers to selling through carriers.

The SeaBoard Group estimates the overall WiFi products and services market in Canada (including use of the technology in homes and businesses) will grow to $800 million by 2007, the kind of news resellers want to hear.

As the technology’s visibility increases, analysts say, so will the demand for businesses to adopt it, followed by home users.

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