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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

WiFi: Seamless is useless, but wide seams are horrible

In the last week I’ve attended and spoken at two WiFi conferences (both in Amsterdam, oddly). WiFi has also been a regular topic at other events recently, both in terms of access (eg SoftBank’s offload strategy) and applications (eg WiFi-calling and also more interesting/innovative telco VoWiFi apps like Orange Libon).

In the past, I’ve criticised the cellular industry for trying to subvert WiFi, as well as attempting massive over-reach in trying to create converged WiFi/cellular services, diminishing users’ choice and control over WiFi (see here).

But my recent learning has been that the mobile operators are not the only “bad actors” trying to undermine the utility of WiFi. A wide range of other companies are pitching ever-more-intrusive approaches to the “monetisation” of WiFi.

Both groups are pushing the boundaries of acceptability, from the point of view of users or other stakeholders. The former are attempting to create “seamless” networks, ignoring the importance and value of “seams” (aka boundaries) to many participants (link: such as venue owners). And some of the latter group are trying to create heavy, ugly, unnecessary seams – often with duplicitous words like “engagement”, when a more accurate term would be “grudgingly-accepted interruption & privacy invasion”.

Let’s try a thought experiment first. Next time you use the bathroom in a hotel or restaurant, consider two options:

1)     Imagine that before using the bathroom, you had to watch a 30-second video, download an app, or navigate various advertising and promotion menus. Various intrusive data would be collected about you to help better-target the adverts in future, and you might be asked to log in and like the bathroom on Facebook.
2)     Imagine instead that you could instantly access the bathroom, but only because you pre-identified yourself with your home water company’s customer number. For now, it’s free – but you’ve heard that some water companies are now starting to charge “roaming” fees for public bathrooms even if they’re free to other visitors, or include the volumes of water used in your normal quota. You’re also a bit concerned that residential drought restrictions & policies on water use might be applied for roaming use too.

In other words, where WiFi is provided as an amenity (not a service), it is important to just offer it with a simple mechanism (but not without the user being unaware) and then get out of the way. For instance, I’m writing this in Amsterdam Airport, where there’s a simple splash page offering 4hrs connection with a single click and no registration/password requirement. Contrast this with my awful recent experience at JFK, where I was exhorted to download an app for a measly 30mins access. (Hilariously, the app wasn’t available for people using non-US Apple AppStores – utter cluelessness at an international airport).

Now in other situations, putting simple ads or useful services on a splash page is useful – maybe a hotel offering other services, or an airline lounge WiFi showing departure gate information. Sometimes I’ve seen “WiFi sponsored by Brand X”, and it’s OK to get a quick screen of their logo before connecting. Quid pro quo is fine, in moderation. But lengthy video ads, intrusive registration (except where local laws insist) and 2-factor authentication via SMS/PIN-code seem like overkill.

On the telco side, I’ve written before why so-called seamless WiFi-to-cellular integration is often bad for users, app developers, enterprises and venue owners. Fortunately, the market has wisely overseen the failure of pointless ANDSF standard, and very limited rollout of HotSpot 2.0. These are arrogant standards, based on the flawed assumption that mobile operators are able to determine “always best connected” options. Given the number of stakeholders involved – users, fixed operators, mobile operator, OS providers, venues, employers, app developers and more – it is mathematically impossible to define “best” from all perspectives, with all criteria.

The concept of “always best connected” is a lie (OK, I’ll be generous a euphemism). There is no one “best” which all involved can agree upon.

We can also now see the usual engines of cellular Machiavellianism revving up in anticipation of 5G. Once again there is the rhetoric of WiFi being “part of future 5G standards” – the assertion being that it will be "brought under the umbrella".  While some WiFi may become integrated into the pseudo-mythical “HetNets”, most will not. The issue is that venue owners, enterprise LAN managers, end-users, and network-aware app developers don’t have loud voices to protect their interests.

Regulators should keep close watch too, especially given the consolidation being seen in many mobile telecom industries. Public/venue/amenity WiFi provides an arbitrage path for consumers, to play off against their cellular provider’s data plans as and when they can. This is important – even if 3rd party WiFi can be slightly cumbersome to access, it essentially provides partial competition to the mobile industry. It is therefore critical for regulators to ensure that WiFi is kept as independent as possible, and that users have to make an explicit choice between telco-offered WiFi and that available from the venue itself or another service provider. As some operators are trying to bundle WiFi data use (in GB terms) with LTE, it becomes even more important that users can see and choose alternative sources of WiFi easily. It is also important for application developers to have visibility (and sometimes control) of network access – and not be subjected to the whim of the operator’s core network and policy servers.

To sum up – the battle for the soul of WiFi continues. On one hand the mobile industry is hoping to subsume (or, though LTE-U interference, subvert) public WiFi access. But at the other end, over-aggressive “monetisation” is likely to reduce its utility and convenience too. There needs to be concerted effort to keep WiFi implementations user-friendly and open to easy choice.

The seams need to be finely tailored and elegant, not removed entirely, nor bulked-up and intrusive.

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