What does Free Wi-Fi really mean and is this misleading?

free wifiAmenity Wi-Fi has become an important service for public facing businesses to offer. Hotels, retail stores, even restaurants visibly promote its availability. But there is a plethora of different services on offer, some making for an unpleasant experience. Should service quality be clearly labelled, and will a seamless service prove more popular?



Not so free Wi-Fi

Providing a good Wi-Fi service incurs costs, just like any wireless service. These include:

  • Capital cost of the access points. Higher capacity/quality ones are more expensive than the low cost/mass produced residential hubs. The rapid pace of Wi-Fi technology advancement reduces lifetime to perhaps three years.
  • Internet backhaul. Some smaller hotels try to squeeze their service onto a shared ADSL broadband with poor results. Larger businesses recognise the need for higher capacity, anything up to 1Gbps, to avoid bottlenecks.
  • Active management. Someone needs to be monitoring the system and proactively responding to faults and poor performance. That needs both an operations control centre and field staff who can visit the site.
  • Support. Who are you going to call if it doesn’t work? A 24 hour telephone helpline may be needed for those struggling to configure their devices.

Recognising the need to provide a professional service and faced with additional costs, many businesses look for ways to offset or reduce the expense.

Open Access

One cost reduction is to make it much simpler to access the Wi-Fi. The easiest method is to make it open access, so that no password is required. Users just select the Wi-Fi hotspot name and are immediately connected. There are fewer support calls and fewer frustrated customers struggling to make the connection.

The hidden downside of that approach is that there is no security encryption. Web browsing is sent “in the clear” and could easily be viewed by anyone nearby with very simple open source snooping software running on a standard laptop. Growing enforcement of HTTPS encryption by major websites (Google, Facebook etc.) helps, but this is by no means universal. Most email access is encrypted by default, but many end users will simply be unaware of the potential risk.

A disadvantage for the business is that there is no means to restrict access to visitors. Filtering and traffic shaping can be used to throttle speeds for the most demanding devices. Rogue devices could be identified and banned.

Personal Identity

Many Wi-Fi services ask for personal details before granting access. An email address is the most common parameter, but some venues want full name, address and other details. There is often an opt-in for marketing purposes which is mandatory to gain access. I doubt many bother to read the full terms and conditions prior to signing up. Some systems use Facebook as a log-in, which gives access to a wide range of personal details.

Once logged in, the device MAC (a unique address assigned to the Ethernet hardware) can be recorded and linked to these personal details. While there is an advantage in that you may no longer need to login again in future, the downside is that your movements can be tracked and associated with any future access.

This article explains how free Wi-Fi in NEw York City is funded by advertising, targetted through personal information required to log in. Revenues of $500 million are forecast by selling user's personal data.

Charging for premium service

Free Wi-Fi may be speed limited, preventing its use for video streaming and other features. While adequate for basic email and messaging, I’ve found that the more graphic rich websites can take quite some time to load.

This is to encourage visitors to pay a premium for higher speed access, opening up use to watch videos and other entertainment. Some hotels would consider this as compensation for not buying videos online in the room.

Wi-Fi Network Performance

When most devices connect through Wi-Fi, they assume that (a) it’s free and (b) it’s plentiful. Often this is the case when at home or in the office. In public spaces however, that may not be true, and high demands are placed on capacity.

Poorly dimensioned networks can deliver disappointing performance. It may take some time to recognise the problem, and determine whether it’s worth while.

The outcome can reflect badly on the venue, especially where Wi-Fi is advertised as being available. Many building owners and businesses recognise this and there has been increased investment to improve service quality.

Simplicity of Wi-Fi roaming

Passpoint, a Wi-Fi standard feature, offers the capability of seamless and secure access. All traffic is encrypted by default, even the negotiation and login sequence. It’s facilitated by a network operator (fixed, cellular or Wi-Fi), who provisions a security certificate onto your device. Any Wi-Fi network with a roaming partnership can be used transparently, with the intention that this works as seamlessly as GSM cellular roaming.

I had expected to see much wider use of this feature by now, but it’s still not yet extensively used. Proprietary schemes such as FON have greater traction. It seems unlikely to me that Passpoint will be applicable for smaller venues (e.g. the guest house or small hotel). Some office Enterprises are not expected to adopt it either. It’s more likely to be deployed in public venues and open spaces.

Continuous improvement of in-building cellular

An ongoing competitive threat to Wi-Fi is the growing pervasiveness and reducing cost of cellular service. For business users, cellular service remains the simplest and most secure choice. Where cost is not outrageous and service performance adequate, then users tend to remain on the cellular network.

It’s only where good cellular service isn’t available or is very costly that users actively seek out Wi-Fi for their smartphones and tablets. Laptops, which consume much larger volumes of data, would be where logging into Wi-Fi access is much more likely.

Evidence from South Korea, where high speed LTE has been widely available for some time, shows that users prefer to remain on that and actively switch off Wi-Fi. I’ve also witnessed that at several conferences in recent months, where the Wi-Fi service has been much poorer than cellular.

Those consumers who are much more budget conscious, such as school students, are likely to continue to seek out opportunities for free internet service when possible. As cellular inclusive data plans continue to increase in size, the incentive to do so may be reduced.

More education required

End users are very aware that Wi-Fi is free while cellular data is chargeable. Some, but not all, understand that video consumes far more than other services.

Few appreciate that open Wi-Fi access is insecure.

Many are frustrated by the variable nature of performance delivered.

Educating the public as to what they can expect and what is being delivered would raise standards. I’d like to see clearer labelling of what a “Free Wi-Fi” service means. This could be achieved through mandatory labelling, e.g.:

  • Free Wi-Fi: Unsecured and unencrypted
  • Free Wi-Fi: Personal details required
  • Free Wi-Fi: Secured, web browsing speed
  • Free Wi-Fi: Secured, video speed
  • Cellular In-Building: Secured, seamless, high speed

This would also highlight the benefits of Passpoint and cellular data service, which can provide that seamless and secure connection which we already take for granted.

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