Wi-Fi networks may run at a maximum rate of 54 Mbps, but the feed to the Internet on hotspots is always far below that: The mismatch between wireless local area network (WLAN) speeds, found in corporations and homes for moving data around within a network, and the wide area network (WAN) speed, which is frequently a low to medium broadband rate, means that hotspots are undervalued based on their connectivity. It's why Verizon wants you to think that their 200 to 400 Kbps EVDO cellular network is as useful as a Wi-Fi hotspot.
But the local part of the WLAN at a hotspot could be leveraged to provide more interesting services that are impossible over 3G cellular into the far future and that could make hotspots more useful to a greater range of users.
I've asked Apple on more than one occasion why they don't have a local cache of their gigabytes of Mac OS X and other software upgrades on the local networks at the Apple Stores they run mostly in the U.S. They've given me non-answer answers. I've wondered aloud why Akamai and other content-to-the-edge companies aren't involved in pushing content into high-traffic parts of the Net, like inside Internet service providers own networks (they are in some). I've questioned the folks at T-Mobile as to whether you couldn't just stick a server with a big hard drive in a Starbucks and deliver, you know, rich content without all the tedious download time.
The edge of a network is where all the action is, and the closer to the edge that content providers and service providers can push information, the more readily users will access it. With increasingly rich media available (albeit with tons of hard-coded usage restrictions), it would make sense to push the content closer to users instead of maintaining the gating factor of the local loop.
Finally, some of this is coming to pass. Starbucks will preview the movie Akeelah in its stores over its Wi-Fi networks. It's unclear whether the content is cached locally or pushed over the T-1 lines that feed T-Mobile HotSpot locations. One hopes it's cached locally. Even with lower-speed broadband at hotspots, they could retrieve updates overnight, or even load data from DVDs shipped out at relatively high bit-per-second rates via FedEx.
I've thought that the weak spot in delivering movies over the Internet is still broadband's slow speeds. If I could pop into a hotspot and pull down a movie at 20 Mbps instead of at home at 1.5 to 5 Mbps, it might be worth my time. And I might buy a cup of coffee and think about signing up for that hotspot network as well.