Hard to say how this will play out. In particular, because there's nothing chiseled in stone that says WiFi must be free.
In the US, telcos own much of the cabled broadband and 3G and 4G cellular. Free WiFi normally uses cabled broadband. So it's not clear to me, in cases here the same company owns the wired and cellular broadband, why that company can't adjust its prices as it sees fit, to drive the traffic volume where it suits them.
@Junko, most people living in cities --and I believe this is the case of the mayority of the Chinese population-- have easy access to wi-fi. I have a 1 GB data plan for my smartphone and I rarely use more than 200 Mb/month because I use wi-fi both at my office and at home.
If people have to pay for more data they'll use wi-fi for most data intensive apps and downloads. Both Android and iOS allow people to select what content to download and control the use of cellular data.
Offering unlimited or large data packages (i.e. 5 Gb) for a reasonable price can help operators to lure customers to fast networks, and leverage the investment. Trying to squezee every penny of data traffic and roaming services will only drive customers away.
@Pablo, good point. I see that might be the case for DAL and fixed-line calls. But what about mobile phones? Unlimted data plans? But wouldn't that rob the opportunity for China Mobile to recoup their investment in 3g/4g infrastartucture build out?
@Junko, I believe the present --and future-- of telecoms is to offer unlimited plans and bundles.
A few years ago Telefonica was facing a similar situation in Spain with fixed-line calls and DSL. They decided to bundle DSL with unlimited national calls for a flat fee (calls to mobile phones are extra). It was really sucessful and nowadays most people in the country use that plan.
I just read today that WhatsApp has surpased the 500M user barrier, and the markets where they are growing really fast are China, Brazil, India, Mexico and Russia.
What telecoms need to understand is that people have many choices now, and they can't stick to their traditional business models, they need to embrace new solutions and innovate to keep customers.