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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Venue-owners don't want "seamless" WiFi

One of the regular myths put forward by the cellular industry is that WiFi is a natural, integrated part of the mobile world, and that we will all soon be "seamlessly" connecting to the "best" network in any specific location.

It's hard to tell if this is arrogance or simply ignorance.

As a concept, it positions the cellular industry as the most important and influential stakeholder in WiFi, especially when it comes to smartphones. This is very much untrue.

Even leaving aside the better fit of WiFi with fixed/cable telcos than mobile, one only needs look at the growing array of locations deploying WiFi for their guests / visitors / customers. Often, for all its possible awkwardness, the "seam" (eg a splash page or logon screen) is an important property. It used to capture user data, display ads or information, or otherwise "engage" with people who would otherwise have little direct interaction with that location or brand.

They have no interest in restricting access to people using a specific mobile operator, nor phones with particular technologies, or operator-customised connection manager apps. Many may have particular terms and conditions that they wish users to agree to, before providing access. 

So airlines and airports provide access to frequent flyers, or to a page with departure times/gates and retailers' details. Some locations force users to watch a video before getting access. Some link into loyalty schemes, or collect email addresses, or ask for a social-network login or "like". Cafes and other locations also obviously need to service non-cellular users connecting laptops - and probably don't want every phone auto-connecting as they'll suffer congestion. Often, WiFi is intended for private work or personal web-access, not "offload" from cellular.

As an example, belowis a picture of a London bus, painted in the colours of some new flavours of Magnum ice-cream. It also has a logo for free WiFi. According to this article in the Grocer marketing magazine, it is part of an integrated advertising strategy. "The buses will use free WiFi to encourage consumers to view branded content recommending things to do in the capital depending on whether they are feeling playful or sophisticated".

While it's possible that the in-bus system is provided by a telecom firm to Transport for London, and presumably it uses LTE backhaul, that is totally separate from the purpose of the WiFi access given to consumers. It's for advertising, not offload. And presumably TfL is looking to monetise it as part of package, along with the garish black/pink stickers on the bus.

The same is true of other venues. They want to offer WiFi as a differentiator, or as a visible value-add. If it fades into the background, it becomes neither. In addition, as a user there may be very good reasons to want to use a different WiFi provider than your cellular operator - especially if it routes traffic through a core network which imposes policies you wish to avoid (eg blocking VoIP, or applying charges for certain content). There might be times you want frictionless access (eg one-click), but the problem with seamless access is that it may come with price, usability, privacy or security limitations or compromises. 

The phrase "always best connected" is duplicitous - it generally means "best" from the point of view of the operator, not the user, advertiser, venue-owner, device-vendor or application provider. Although there might be some workable use-cases of ANDSF, PassPoint, Hotspot 2.0, I-WLAN and assorted other automated WiFi connection standards, they need very careful assessment as often they will be more harmful than helpful.

I think there is scope for regulators to look at "WiFi Neutrality" laws, preventing people from being forced (or even differentially persuaded) towards specific operators' preferred networks - especially if those networks are also non-neutral in terms of policy management. Also, independent WiFi is an important competitive component in consolidating telecom markets - governments should encourage its role as a de facto method for keeping mobile data charges at reasonable levels. (See this post on partial competition) 

My view is that the only people who want to instigate "seamless" WiFi are those lacking the imagination or commercial capability to monetise the "seam". And increasingly, users will have multiple ways to get online with WiFi at any given location, and may wish to choose based on circumstance and brand affiliation - or perhaps the chance of a free ice-cream.

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