In the online-driven society of today, receiving something for free is generally understood to be part and parcel of the environment. Why then the debate over the sustainability and feasibility of providing free Wi-Fi services?
Using What’s-up for free, updating Facebook for free, calling on Skype for free and getting your latest music hit for free - in today’s Internet landscape getting something for free is normal …even expected. When you do need to pay for an on-line service, then it should be at a minimal fee … like watching Netflix. Even getting access to the Internet is expected to be free when using public Wi-Fi services.
Is there a debate because we intuitively feel we are getting “too much” for free and if you do not pay for it, somehow it will not be there tomorrow… a guilt trip of sorts? Is it because the industry has spotted a major consumer demand and doesn’t want to miss out on a money making opportunity?
According to the latest Wireless Broadband Alliance report there is a particular need for mobile operators to focus on public Wi-Fi as their cellular capacity is stretched by the explosion in data usage. Tier one MNOs expect 22% of the capacity they had in 2013 to come from public Wi-Fi and by 2018, 75% of their small cells will have integrated Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi offers lower cost higher capacity solutions to mobile operators, which is very attractive. What is less attractive is that Wi-Fi is expected to be free, so understandably mobile operators would be inclined to argue against free Wi-Fi.
The Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) report confirms that retailers are increasingly using Wi-Fi services to promote and market products and services. Some envisage future retail outlets as showrooms for items that are then purchased online over a Wi-Fi connection, while in the store. For these retailers giving consumer access to free high-quality Wi-Fi services, is a “normal requirement”
Then there is the data analytic fraternity with sophisticated software and models that can track your every move – where you have shopped, walked, your intended destination and even what you will be doing next. All of this information is gold in the hands of the clever marketing guru. Selling this type of data to marketers might be a far more lucrative prospect for Wi-Fi network operators than charging the user for Internet access.
With such diverse viewpoints and interests from various Wi-Fi providers it is no surprise that the WBA report notes business model uncertainty, as one of the key challenges to overcome for the mass deployment of Wi-Fi services.
What is also clear from these industry developments is that the focus is moving increasingly towards the business case uncertainties and less on technology concerns. Recent developments such as Next Generation Hotspots, Passpoint™ and seamless authentication technologies have all combined to facilitate growth in the Wi-Fi industry and eliminate concern over technical performances.
However the technology developments have also created a large field of specialist technologies and solutions, and the need for partnerships between trusted system integrators and industry leading products, is paramount to ensure future proof deployments.
In the Wi-Fi landscape of the future the quick plug-and-play Wi-Fi access point installation link with voucher systems to service a public venue simply might not suffice.
We can expect the debate around free Wi-Fi to continue and we will also see various models implemented in the near future; some with more success than others. What we know is that; “When something is for free…. then you are the product” - so think carefully about how you sell yourself next time you use a free Wi-Fi service.
Liza du Plessis
Liza du Plessis