Fast, Free & Easy Public Wi-Fi – A Cost of Doing Business

@keithrparsons – Atlanta, GA – April 11th, 2013

I’ve been an advocate of ‘Fast, Free, Easy Wi-Fi for many years now. Many folks disagree with my sentiments. Perhaps because many people involved in the Wi-Fi arena make money off of selling and maintaining Wi-Fi systems for companies, and it is a far easier sale when you can convince your client the costs paid to your firm for doing Wi-Fi will be recouped through various other means.

But this post is about how Wi-Fi should be… not how people make money from it today. I’ll be talking about a change in attitude more than anything else. Sometimes a paradigm shift is all that is needed.

First some examples of other types of services different businesses use that fall in the category – ‘Costs of Doing Business’. These are expenses, with both a CAPEX and/or an OPEX component.

Hospitality (Hotels)

  • Lobby Areas
  • Parking Areas
  • Swimming Pools
  • Free Breakfast
  • Daily Housekeeping
  • Laundry Services
  • Security
  • In-Room TV’s
  • Cable/Satellite Channels
  • Public Restrooms
  • Marketing


  • Public Spaces
  • Lobbies
  • Public Restrooms
  • Security
  • Marketing
  • Special Events
  • Returns Service
  • Location, Location, Location
  • Lights in Parking Lots

General Business

  • Public Areas
  • Elevators
  • Security
  • Public Restrooms
  • Marketing
  • Advertising
  • Warehousing Space
  • Break Rooms

What ties all of these different services together? They are ALL cost centers! In real estate we call these costs C.A.M. – common area maintenance. Costs for maintaining building security, elevators, shared electrical costs, janitorial services, etc. When leasing a property, they are added on to the ‘rent’ – and are included in the monthly payment for use of some section of the building.

With all of these ‘free services’ there is a known cost. Sometimes mostly an initial capital expense, but many have ongoing operating costs as well.

Why would any business knowingly incur these costs, even though they can’t directly tie any revenues back to them?

  • Because they are part of the ‘Costs of Doing Business’.
  • Because their customers and clients EXPECT these as part of what a ‘normal’ business in their industry supplies.
  • Because they know without these ‘free services’ their customers might go to their competitors.
  • Because it is the right way to conduct business today and stay in business tomorrow.

Free Public Wi-Fi – History

Accessing the Internet from an always-on mobile device is a fairly new phenomenon. Since the advent of the Smart Phone and Tablet computing, the expectation of an always-on mobile device – it is now a solid customer expectation.

Years ago, when the first Wi-Fi Hotspots were developed, someone thought this would make for a fine business model. Provide Wireless Internet Access and charge customers for the convenience of getting something that was expensive and difficult to obtain any other way.

This paradigm still exists today – and it is running smack in the face of reality. Reality that it’s not just business people with expense accounts need to access the Internet – but the bulk of our first-world societies have this same need. Not only have the need – but now have the expectation it will be satisfied.

Years ago, getting Internet connectivity at then-expensive T1 speeds was only for the very rich, or for businesses who could justify the thousands of dollars per month for that ability. Today, however, broadband access is measured in tens of Megabits – and delivered to your home or office for prices in the tens of dollars per month.

Wireless Internet used to be a ‘nice-to-have’ feature – today it is a requirement.

Why ‘Fast, Free, and Easy’ for Public Wi-Fi?

I came up with these descriptions of what Public Wi-Fi should be in order to meet the needs and expectations of the customers we interviewed for my clients who were looking to roll out Public Wi-Fi.

Fast – note this is the first descriptor. The number one complaint of people we spoke with referred to the terrible experiences they’ve had on ‘Free Wi-Fi’. Glacially slow connections, unable to place calls, websites not responsive, and email not connecting at all. This is almost always caused by the system owner choosing to not pay for a faster Internet connection. They see all costs associated with Wi-Fi as BAD, and begrudgingly go about adding Wi-Fi but want to be cheap and fight every little cost. The net result is they have more complaints and loose more customers than if they’d not even had Wi-Fi at all.

Free – this is a very nebulous word. Some consider ‘not paying cash’ a form of free, and probably this is what most people think. But it also includes the idea that Public Wi-Fi should be Free from privacy issues, Free from subtle, devious ways to sell information. Public Wi-Fi should be Free as in Beer, Free as in Speech, and Free from Ads. These are all things people/customers desire.

Easy – this refers to not only the initial access. Having a user type in a long password, or click through many pages of ‘terms of service’ – all are intrusive and slow down the process. Easy means not even needing to have a browser on a Wi-Fi device.  Perhaps as Hotspot 2.0 finally comes out, we might have this as an option… but I’m not holding my breath. Easy means it should be just like your home Wi-Fi network. You see the SSID, you click on it, then you are connected to the Internet. Easy also means some technical things as well. VPN’s work, ports aren’t blocked, applications just run, email servers are accessible.

Do I expect providers of Public Wi-Fi to deliver ‘Fast, Free, and Easy Wi-Fi’ soon, well maybe perhaps not… but we do need to have a goal. A goal to deliver the best possible Wi-Fi access to the Internet, delivered in the appropriate manner, for those who are expecting it.

What about the costs of providing Public Wi-Fi?

Here is where the paradigm shift needs to take place. First with those of us who are in the business of providing design, consulting ands sales to those who want to provide Public Wi-Fi.

First – Wi-Fi should never be thought of as a revenue generator. Going down this path will only lead to disappointed customers. Providing Wi-Fi is just like providing any of those other free services as listed above. Companies have many costs that are part of ‘Costs of Doing Business’. Wi-Fi is one of those.

Second – See rule one. Now do it!

Third – Don’t try creative ways to break rule one.

  • Sneaking in advertisements.
  • Changing DNS or Web Services.
  • Selling customer information.
  • Any other devious way you can think of.

Fourth – if you need to, compare costs of providing a good Fast, Free and Easy Wi-Fi service to any of the other listed free services. For example:

  • Security – It has a very high CAPEX, cabling, power, servers, cameras, NOC, etc. As well as fairly high OPEX with people, guards, backups, etc. Wi-Fi pales in comparison, yet meets the expectations and needs of customers.
  • Free Breakfast – The room has up front costs, a kitchen, then all the ongoing costs for, wait staff, kitchen staff, cleanup – and a daily resupply of food.

In either of these two simple cases, the CAPEX costs for Wi-Fi are far less. As well as the ongoing costs for delivering packets of data are far less OPEX. Yet it provides an obvious, customer requested, customer expected need for Wi-Fi Internet access.

Everyone knows somewhere deep down, free breakfast isn’t really free – someone is buying the food, preparing the food and cleaning up the mess. But it is part of a customer’s choice in which hotel to stay at.

Everyone knows that mall security costs money – but they expect the mall they shop at to be safe, secure, and the retail shops who gladly take their money are willing to pay the additional CAM charges to make sure their customers are happy and buying more goods.

Each person eats more than $1.00 worth of food at these ‘Free Breakfasts’. The hotels are glad to pay it. But each person uses far less than $1.00 worth of data – even with a fast Internet backhaul. But somehow the hotels have been taught to fear these costs – I wonder who taught them that?

It’s all about a paradigm shift

Oh, wait, I’ve already used the words paradigm shift too many times – but it has been necessary.

The main thing needed in providing great Free, Fast, and Easy Wi-Fi to the public is for WLAN Professionals, and their associated clients to treat Public Wi-Fi like any other of the ‘Costs of Doing Business’.

Caveat to the above post. I know some locations have legal requirements to track individual users / devices who access the Internet via Public Wi-Fi Hotspots. To you I give my condolences.  Big Brother is becoming a reality… 

Caveat number two. I’ve been reminded that ‘Terms of Service’ are things that ‘should be’ used. But I’m against anything that makes the Wi-Fi experience difficult or slow for the end user. ALL captive portals are a pain. I want to see Public Wi-Fi on par with the experience one would have at home. It just works!

Your comments are always welcome. Lets start a conversation about Fast, Free, and Easy Public Wi-Fi!