What’s wrong with Free public WiFi?

I used to work in the public sector [Network Rail] on free public WiFi. Since then I have spent a lot of time building the business case for free public access to the Internet.

Public WiFi started in coffee shops.  They realised that providing customers with access to the Internet would lead to longer dwell times and increased sales. And so began the public’s association of the word “free” with “WiFi”. Today, almost all coffee shops and restaurants offer WiFi to their customers “free” of charge!  It has become expected.

It wasn’t always so…

As people started travelling with technology [laptops & smart phones], hotels cashed-in and charged guests for access to the Internet.  Not just cheap hotels, some of the finest places to stay in the world, would charge their guests an additional fee (per night) to access the world wide web. Initially, for the hotels, this seemed like a good way to offset the costs of providing the service.  For the guests, the often poor quality of the expensive connection lead to resentment.  Through pressure from crowd sourced review sites like Trip Advisor, hotels have stopped charging for WiFi. They now use services like Hotelwifitest.com to compete on the quality of their complimentary Internet access.

Along came the telcos…

Like home WiFi, in the early days, public WiFi also used a telephone line to connect to the Internet.  Engineers were required,  allowing telecoms providers to offer “WiFi in a box” solutions for venues.  BT currently operates their old OpenZone hotspot business as BT wi-fi https://www.btwifi.co.uk/.  O2 created a successful Wi-Fi offering https://www.o2wifi.co.uk/ and the Cloud https://www.skywifi.cloud/ emerged as an independent provider of WiFi access [now owned by Sky].  Venue operators exchanged their customer data [and attention] for free or subsidised Internet access.

The problem is that delivering WiFi costs money. Costs associated with;

  • Supplying hardware,
  • Providing Internet access,
  • Handling customer registrations and
  • Keeping people safe online.  

As well as maintaining and upgrading the equipment.


And here lies the inherent problem with public Wi-Fi monetisation. The more people that use it, the more expensive it is to provide.

And so began the hunt for the buried treasure…



Some services [continue to] ask users to pay for access to the Internet. With an opportunity to buy WiFi from the landing page.  I find this most frequently in airports, where they have also discovered a hybrid version of the cash model, where you get either:

  • Some [30] minutes free (before you need to pay) or,
  • An impossibly slow connection until you pony up.

This is a lazy and unimaginative approach, that rarely generates enough revenue to pay for the service. It also creates unreasonable friction.  There are alternative ways to access the Internet – eg: “I have a phone in my pocket and can probably figure out how to achieve the same thing (or wait).”

Monetisation of attention

With all these people are using your free connection, why not show them some adverts?  It is true that highly trafficked websites command sizeable revenues from display advertising, however it is also the case that people choose to visit these sites.  Online businesses work hard to create content that attracts users who generate advertising and/or sponsorship opportunities.  In a similar way that people walk or drive past poster sites and can choose to pay attention to their messages. Forcing customers to watch a video or see an advert isn’t part of a bargain most users are willing to enter into.

[Strangely this is the model of almost all private TV stations created before 2000].

There are some great examples of brands creating online experiences that are closely linked to a physical experience.  These tend to be around festivals or full public space “take overs” or movie/product launches etc… This approach can be effective and profitable, but usually requires a “partnership” approach and demands highly trafficked desirable locations.

Customer Data

In order to increase the value of their users [to a potential advertiser], operators and venues started to collect [some] personal data. Data such as; age [range], gender, family size & home post code may seem important but asking for too much data upfront can create friction.  Unnecessary data capture early on can lead to fewer customers using the service.


The problems with this narrow approach to WiFi delivery and monetisation are obvious on the railway.  Where the costs of providing Internet access on a moving train can be higher. If not managed correctly, using 3/4G to offload data traffic is expensive.  To prevent too many passengers using the service at the same time, train companies discourage WiFi use by either providing an artificially poor service or charging for it (or both).

Successful WiFi comes from a clear understanding of what you want to achieve, matching this with art of the technically possible and then ensuring that you can nurture and sustain the solution whilst building a a rusted relationship with your users.

The Purpose

Why do you want to provide free Wi-Fi?

  • If I am a coffee shop: I want to provide free Wi-Fi so customers will stick around and buy more coffee.
  • If I am a hotel: I need to offer better complimentary Internet than other hotels in a similar class in the local area
  • If I am a retailer: I might want to offer shoppers an easy way to compare in store prices with online prices
  • If I am pub: I want drinkers to stay longer and have less reasons to leave
  • If I am a Train Station: I want passengers to have something useful to do

Wi-Fi with a clear purpose is able to more easily articulate value and benefit, providing some simple measurements that can be used to monitor success and compare actual with intended outcomes.


Once the primary purpose has been identified it becomes easier to make sense of the business rationale. The business case for WiFi might fly based on the benefits of the primary purpose.  We will sell enough additional cups of coffee to cover the cost of the WiFi. Or it may become clear that the cost of having a better Internet connection is likely to exceed the profit generated by the additional revenues.


Joined up organisations look to work together to build a compelling case for ubiquitous bandwidth or Internet everywhere.  Going beyond the simple free public WiFi, businesses can:

  • Improve the Point of Sale experience using WiFi,
  • Deliver BYOD for employees,
  • Deploy digital signage,
  • Deliver enhanced footfall monitoring capabilities,
  • Enhance [smart] CCTV or
  • RFID enabled stock management.

These are often IT lead initiatives which can share the same underlying technology [WiFi] to benefit both internal and external stakeholders.

First Project Pays

Very often organisations operate a “first project pays” approach to capital funding.  Often this is due to historical reasons of project and/or programme alignment and traditional cost benefit analysis and budget allocation. Common in the Public Sector –  the problem [from a WiFi point of view] is that a single purpose must justify the expense of an entire project.  A collective approach to benefits can overcome many objections.  And strong leadership can ensure that all benefits can be adequately recognised.

Once an organisation has identified a purpose/objective for free WiFi [or several], building the best infrastructure is key to delivering a great service. Replacing structured cabling with WiFi in an office may require a much higher quality service [capable of voice and video call delivery] than giving visitors to your pub access to the Internet.  Wireless networks have very different characteristics from wired networks, with security and managing the consistency of service across an estate being vitally important.

Outdoor deployments are different from indoor, stadia are different from shops, shopping centres different from hotels and so on. As a customer, it is important that you identify the key aspects of a WiFi network that matter to your organisation and your users.

 infrastructureIt’s not just plumbing!

Sometimes organisations see WiFi as an IT problem in search of a technical solution. It’s all about hardware and vendors, backhaul and servers – the technical stuff, but the technical aspects of delivering a quantitative and qualitative WiFi service are largely misunderstood [and should be treated as hygiene.]

It’s what you do with your WiFi that matters

The user experience that you deliver on top of your WiFi service is REALLY what matters. And yet there has been little innovation in this particular area and venue operators can be forgiven for deploying homogeneous Captive Portals:


  • Capture registration details,
  • Provide a “flexible publishing platform” to build landing page,
  • Allow you to create promotions/surveys/adverts,
  • Deliver real time analytics and insight,
  • Can be integrated with your preferred CRM or subscriber Data Base.

eCommerce – 25 years ago at the dawn of the Internet, eCommerce was taking shape. My first job was an eCommerce marketing manager and I worked in the IT department. There are some parallels: eCommerce is a highly technical game, with hardware [lots of servers], software [from high end vendors], bandwidth etc.  In the beginning this was purely a technical challenge, but as the infrastructure has matured, the high availability of a website is now largely seen as hygiene.   eCommerce has moved into the sales and marketing domain, with budgets to attract, incentivise and retain customers that often dwarf the cost of managing and maintaining the infrastructure. Large successful eCommerce deployments require business to work together developing technology that meets the widest possible set of needs so each team can extract maximum benefit.

social icons

Everything’s SOCIAL

Social media has provided captive portal vendors and WiFi integrators a sexy point of difference. With very little thought to customers and without understanding the what, why and how. Social WiFi emerged a few years ago as THE way to onboard users and as a result get more Facebook likes… [seriously].

Now I maybe mistaken but I’m not sure any business’ primary purpose is facebook likes, in fact I have never seen it as a secondary benefit either. Generating a buzz is not [usually] a commercial reason to use social anything.  Allowing customers to login using an existing account (federating their identity) reduces initial friction and is good for the end user.   I know you don’t use Facebook – but 32m Brits do, and for them – this might just be easier!

and so what

Once a WiFi network has been deployed, the IT department usually hands over the rest to marketing. End user personal data, analytics and sometimes high-level activity information. All stored on a server somewhere else…

CRM is usually considered to be important, allowing WiFi users to be entered into the corporate 360 view of customers. This normally requires something unique (about the customer) to remain constant throughout all their touch points with an organisation. In our current CRM platform, it is the email address that identifies a customer, however we know that customers rarely give us their correct personal email addresses. As a result, we can only really send them an email [with permission]. Adding personal email details, social media profiles and mobile phone numbers all enrich the “single view of the customer”.  But what are we actually going to do with this additional info? Send them a text message? Post a message on their feed? Maybe, if you are a very small and personal business, but for most organisations the data is fed into a large [and expensive] CRM solution. Very quickly the relevance of the data and insight is watered down and the distance between the user and the business [timeliness and intent] starts to increase. Very few organisations are intrinsically able to respond relevantly to events in near real-time.


Leveraging existing capabilities

Effectively using WiFi is all about the customer.  How often we engage with relevant information.

Sales and marketing functions are preoccupied with ways to deliver relevant and timely information to new and existing customers online. Navigating the social media oceans and discovering the commercial opportunities on offer.  Last year the UK spent over £10bn advertising online, with Google and Facebook alone accounting for around 50%.   As Google’s adwords business becomes mobile, Facebook has created a mobile advertising machine that delivers results at a lower cost.

An entire industry [adtech] has evolved to address the needs of publishers and advertisers helping them optimise/maximise their revenues/opportunities. Programatic platforms algorithmically work out the best time of day/audience/sites/messages/price. And they thrive on data…

Really successful advertising starts with knowing your customer [and their needs] and understanding their context – where are they and what they are doing?


The next generation of WiFi starts here

Using existing capabilities in your business to attract new customers and communicate with existing customers, your free WiFi service can provide the rocket fuel [customer insight] to dramatically change the outcome of your existing online promotional activities. Both increasing response AND reducing cost [at the same time].

Only a small number [relatively] of businesses exist purely online, and those that do have written the book on how to deliver relevant information in a timely fashion. For the rest of the world there is sometimes an uneasy co-existence between the online and offline worlds. Price comparison and customer review have altered the landscape and it can be difficult to build a strategy around leveraging offline assets to succeed online.

Today, with a joined up approach using WiFi, visitors to physical locations can provide the necessary information to improve response rates. Using custom audiences, it is possible to not just talk to the people that visited, but explicitly speak to people like them too [but not them].

There are many ways that you can build an ecosystem, with customers, partners, staff and suppliers to leverage this type of capability and the benefits speak for themselves. It doesn’t need to be sneaky, you don’t need horrific terms and conditions.  GDPR and data compliance can also be easily taken into account.

What are you waiting for?

No matter what your current approach to WiFi is, you can make it [a lot] more valuable to your business right now. Speak to your existing supplier and ask them to make it more useful and see what they recommend.

Understand your purpose and hold your partners to account for delivering the outcomes that you expect.

You can use your WiFi [network] and your customer data to dramatically change the impact of your customer acquisition and retention right now.