Providing Free Wi-Fi Gets Tricky For Business

Free Wifi Worldwide, mobile data growth has boosted the number of hot spots into the millions, with Brazil alone adding about 500,000 wireless access points for the World Cup soccer tournament.

As ubiquitous as free Wi-Fi has become, though, many business owners still don?t offer it, for a variety of reasons, including worries that it encourages some people to hang out at their location for the Internet access while not spending much money.

Time Warner Cable recently commissioned a survey that revealed gaps between the technologies that businesses knew would improve their customer experience, and what they were actually doing. The biggest gap was with Wi-Fi, where 80 percent of the businesses surveyed said they believed their customers expected free Internet access ? and that it was a top way to attract new customers ? but only 43 percent offered it.

?We were surprised by the results of the survey,? said Satya Parimi, a vice president with Time Warner Cable?s division that provides communications services to businesses.

The Wi-Fi gap exists because businesses often are discouraged by the challenges of managing it, sometimes for technical reasons.

?They just don?t want to take on situations where things could go wrong,? Parimi said.

For its business customers, Time Warner Cable recently started offering a free Wi-Fi access point installed and managed by the company. The access point comes with its own Internet connection to ensure that public use is kept separate from a business?s private Internet traffic.

How businesses use the Wi-Fi hot spot is up to them, according to Parimi.

?We are not looking to target the end customer directly. Our strategy is to equip the business to make that call,? he said.

Some businesses use hot spots to send advertisements and electronic coupons to customers while they?re hooked up to the wireless connection. They also use the technology to gather data about customers for marketing purposes.

?There?s no such thing as a free lunch, so if you are getting a free service from someone, you?re probably agreeing to something in return,? said Thad Nation, executive director of a nonprofit group focused on telecommunications issues.

?For a large retailer, information is as valuable as anything else,? Nation said. ?Businesses wouldn?t offer free Wi-Fi if people didn?t spend money there and keep coming back. They make sure you?re comfortable and have electrical outlets because a happy customer is a repeat customer.?

Wi-Fi hot spots can ease boredom while waiting for a service, such as a dentist appointment, and sometimes they help keep customers at a business longer so they can spend more money.

Some of the growth in hot spot locations has been fueled by more people working in nontraditional settings, including freelance contractors who hang out at coffee shops with a laptop computer and mobile phone as their office tools.

AT&T, Verizon and other telecom providers have set up thousands of hot spots for their customers, partly because it takes some of the pressure off their cellular phone networks.

Comcast Corp recently launched a system that will turn millions of its customers? home wireless routers ? units provided by the company ? into a big network of Wi-Fi hot spots. The hot spots are designed primarily to provide visitors to a Comcast customer?s home the ability to access the Internet without having to use that customer?s password.

If the visitors are Comcast customers, they?ll be able to connect to the network free. Non-customers will be able to use the hot spots as well, getting a limited amount of time for free before they?ll have to pay a fee.

Customers can opt out of having their home router in the network, but otherwise they?re included by default.

Comcast did not return calls, but industry experts say it?s an attempt by the company ? which is seeking federal regulators? permission to acquire Time Warner Cable ? to compete better with AT&T and other wireless carriers.

Plans for blanketing cities with municipal Wi-Fi have largely been dropped, not because the service wasn?t wanted, but because it was too expensive for local governments to establish and operate.

Some telecom experts say businesses are more likely to make Wi-Fi systems a success because they have a financial incentive to offer the service. New systems could include hot spot zones where multiple businesses share costs and operations decisions.

As the technology and systems improve, Wi-Fi users could someday go from one hot spot to another without having to log in again.

?Today, it?s still tough to move seamlessly between them … but we think the ubiquitous coverage that Wi-Fi can offer will be pretty compelling,? said Parimi of Time Warner Cable.

Source: MCT Information Services