Wi-Fi offers huge opportunities, but here’s how companies could blow it

My humble wish is this: That in the industry’s collective rush to monetize the blossoming Wi-Fi marketplace, we don’t hobble it before it hits its stride. Because let’s face it, we could botch it so, so easily.

Up until fairly recently, Wi-Fi was about in-home PC connectivity. But a few factors – the popularity of smartphones, the advent of tablets, overburdened cellular networks, among others – have come together to make Wi-Fi ubiquitous and its use in public settings commonplace.

And the trend is only strengthening; In-Stat says that 800 million smartphones alone will ship in 2013 (and a few billion Wi-Fi equipped devices), and Cisco’s 2013 Global Mobile VNI report found that mobile offload will increase from 33 percent (429 petabytes/month) of mobile data traffic in 2012 to 46 percent (9.6 exabytes/month) in 2017.

In our exuberance to monetize the Wi-Fi industry, here are the three big ways where network operators or owners of service provider Wi-Fi deployments can mess it up (Note: the author’s employer, Cisco, makes and sells a variety of Wi-Fi equipment, but the content of this article applies equally to competing products as well).

Make it hard to access Wi-Fi

We have reached the point where we simply expect Wi-Fi to be readily available in airports, hotels and public places. And yet we all know the shock of discovering when the opposite is true. In most places, paying for Wi-Fi not only takes money out of consumers’ pockets, it’s also a hassle and a time suck. But keeping it free to consumers does not, in fact, destroy the business model. It creates others. The fact is people are enticed by free Wi-Fi.

Consider the tale of the cable MSO (I can’t name names yet) that added free Wi-Fi to its broadband package. The result: 15-18 percent churn reduction over 18 months. Now factor in what can happen with the addition of Wi-Fi network intelligence. Pairing free Wi-Fi with location-based analytics improves the business experience and opens up new revenue streams in crowded locations such as hotels and malls.

Say our friend Harry walks into IKEA. Call it a loyalty app, call it a mobile butler, call it a personal concierge – it gets awakened on his phone, by the intelligent network, and alerts him: “Want some free Wi-Fi, Harry, compliments of IKEA?” Harry agrees and is now on the IKEA Wi-Fi network, and chances are high that he’s looking for something IKEA can help him find or discover.

Now doing the opposite – making Wi-Fi difficult to use, with registration and pay schemes – drains time, battery power and more importantly enthusiasm. Anecdotally, a mobile operator recently mentioned to us that even a simple “terms and conditions” pop-up on their network causes a 50 percent drop-off rate, with users abandoning the activity they were planning on engaging in based on inconvenience.  And to the contrary, at a recent professional football game, another operator offered an unadvertised version of Wi-Fi which then generated more than a terabyte of traffic – simply because it was free and easy-to-use.

Abuse the user’s trust

Trying to knowingly or unknowingly capture private data about people, via their gadgets, always backfires in the long run. How happy and willing would you be to regularly frequent a Wi-Fi network if you knew you were going to be bombarded with myriad privacy-invading apps? Not so much.

The popularity of Groupon and other discount sites, however, confirms that if consumers crave anything it’s deals. The challenge then is offering them without compromising security and violating privacy. To effectively balance these factors, let your customers drive your Wi-Fi service. Recognizing the difference between user information and device information is essential to establishing trust with the customer. Rather than mining personal user data, Wi-Fi and location-based services can be used to improve the user experience through their intelligence and by allowing the user to opt in only with the info they want.

Our friend Harry is now on a Las Vegas vacation and could use a little assistance finding his way around the Bellagio resorts. Wi-Fi can help Harry find the ATM machines when GPS can’t reach him indoors or offer him discounted tickets for a late-night show. By enhancing Harry’s experience through network intelligence – offering him information he wants and, crucially, none that he doesn’t – loyalty is built and trust remains intact. The less intrusive the experience, the safer the end-user feels which is critical for encouraging network usage.

Spamming them with unwanted advances

So now you’ve earned Harry’s trust, but that doesn’t mean Harry wants six different offers from you within the span of 10 minutes. That means not pushing your coupon pop-up to Harry until you see one of two things: 1) he appears to be idle, and/or 2) an opportunity to send something contextually relevant arises.

This creates instant value for loyalty and “mobile butler” apps. If you’re the CIO of an IKEA-sized venue, and you know that a quarter of a million people downloaded your loyalty app, you’re probably still ho-hum about the whole thing. Why? Because most people aren’t accustomed to opening the app of the store they’re entering.

However, what’s “intelligent” about intelligent Wi-Fi is that it can awaken the app, to trigger the “Hey Harry,  free Wi-Fi” offer. Next, help him find what he’s looking for. Again, Harry’s mobile butler: “What are you looking for, Harry?” Uh, a drafting table. “Drafting tables are on aisle 10 and there is a special today – 20 percent off.” Result: One sold drafting table. User-pulled, not vendor-pushed.

Or, consider a mobile app / intelligent network launch we did with AT&T and the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta. When you enter, a green light flashes near the antenna icon on your phone. Selecting it returns nearby services – maps, restroom locations, guided tours and more. The café  can detect slowdowns in the mid-afternoon, based on dwell times and crowding (flow control is another proven use for intelligent Wi-Fi.) It auto-generates a trigger that pushes an offer to museum-goers – “Free hot cocoa in the cafe!” – to attract appetites, and thus sales.

Jared Headley is director, service provider mobility, for Cisco. 

Photo courtesy Richard Paul Kane/Shutterstock.com.