If you’ve watched any of the recent Wireless Field Day presentations, you know that free wireless is a big hot button issue. The delegates believe that wireless is something akin to a public utility that should be available without reservation. But can it every really be free?
No Free Lunches
Let’s take a look at other “free” offerings you get in restaurants. If you eat at popular Mexican restaurants, you often get free tortilla chips and salsa, often called a “setup”. A large number of bars will have bowls of salty snacks waiting for patrons to enjoy between beers or other drinks. These appetizers are free so wireless should be free as well, right?
The funny thing about those “free” appetizers is that they aren’t really free. They serve as a means to an end. The salty snacks on the bar are there to make you thirsty and cause you to order more drinks to quench that thirst. The cost of offering those snacks is balanced by the amount of extra alcohol you consume. The “free” chips and salsa at the restaurant serve as much to control food costs as they do to whet your appetite. By offering cheap food up front, people are less likely to order larger food dishes that cost more to make. And if you don’t want to enjoy food from the menu, most restaurants will charge you a “nominal” fee to recoup their costs.
These “free” items serve to increase sales for the business. Business don’t mind giving things away as long as they can profit from them. The value proposition of a free service has to be balanced with some additional revenue source. In that sense, nothing is really and truly free from an altruistic point of view.
The path to offering “free” wifi seems to be headed down the road of collecting information about users in order to offer services to recoup costs. Whether it be through a loyalty programs or social wiereless logins, companies are willing to give you access to wireless in exchange for some information about you.
The tradeoff is reasonable in the eyes of the business. They have to upgrade their infratructure to support transient guest users. It’s one thing to offer guest wireless to employees who are on the payrool and being productive. It’s something else entirely to offer it to people who will potentially use it and not your services. You have to have a way to get that investment back.
For a large percentage of the population, giving away information is something they dont’ care about. It’s something freely available on social media, right? If everyone can find out about it, might as well give it to someone in exchange for free wireless, right?
Despite what people have said as of late, the real issues with social login and data analytics have nothing to do with offering the data. Storing the data somewhere is of little consquence in the long run. So long as a compnay doesn’t attempt to use that data against you in some way then data collection is benign.
Yes, storing that data could be problematic thanks to the ever-shrinking timeline for exposing large databases inside companies. Data sitting around in a database has a siren call to companies to either do something with it or sell it to a third party in an effort to capitalize on the gold mine they are sitting on. But the idea that most people have is that won’t happen. That makes it tolerable to give away something meaningless in exchange for a necessary service.
The price of freedom is vigilance. The price of free wireless is a little less than that. Business owners need value to offer additional services. Cost with no return gives no value. Whether that value comes from increased insight into customer bases or reselling that data to someone that wants to provide analytics services to businesses is a moot point. Wireless will never truly be free so long as there is something that can be traded for its value.
I think your post’s title is a little mis-leading. There ARE instances, many instances of ‘free WI-Fi’ – and I mean those with no hidden agenda, no data collection, none of any of the monetization. Places that merely want to provide public services to their customers to KEEP them their customers. Or to keep them on site for longer.
Coffee Shops, MacDonalds, most Airport, Disney, LaQuinta, etc. quickly come to mind. They don’t ‘trade’ for Wi-Fi any more than they ‘trade’ for providing clean floors, security, public restrooms, escalators, etc.
Wi-Fi has become an expected amenity. Those who learn to treat it as such will fare better in the long run than those who don’t understand the value of keeping customers happy without TAKING from them.
Wi-Fi is just as free as ‘free breakfast’ in some hotels, or ‘free escalators’, or ‘free safety and security’ – things that are merely accepted and normal.
I’ve been a strong supporter of “Fast, Free, and Easy” as the mantra for public Wi-Fi!