Wi-Fi: A Necessity But Not Without Risks

by Sohini Bagchi    May 11, 2015

mobile web

“A week without Wi-Fi leaves people grumpier than a week without coffee,” blogger Vala Afshar wittily mentioned in an article. While this can be an overstatement, there is no doubt that wireless technology is causing disruption to consumers and businesses of every kind. With customers becoming more internet-savvy, comparing prices even when they are shopping, businesses are realizing that ‘free’ Wi-Fi has become a necessity for better customer experience.

For example, online accommodation booking website, Hotels.Com, said in a recent survey that globally over 53 percent guests wish this amenity as a standard service across all hotels and therefore Free Wi-Fi is becoming a must for both business and leisure travellers, especially with a large percentage of the population using smartphones - rely on the free Wi-Fi.

Other areas where most consumers look for Wi-Fi include restaurants and cafeteria, retail outlets and fitness centers and clubs. No wonder then that Wi-Fi is the most important amenity to consumers today. As one study notes that 61 percent customers look for Wi-Fi in restaurants and one third of the visitors visit restaurants that offer only ‘free’ Wi-Fi.

Is Free Wi-Fi really free?

While these Wi-Fi services is seen as a way to increase customer experience, the question that comes to mind is: “Whether free Wi-Fi is really free?” Not really… point out wireless experts who believe there is nothing called ‘free’ Wi-Fi, just as there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Doug Schremp, CTO of BTS Partner states, “Setting up a citywide network is definitely not as easy as putting up access points all over the place. There are some technical issues that need to be addressed, and cities really need to look at the operational and business issues that come with building and owning their own network.”

So, it clearly indicates that the government has to spend a lot of money to ensure that all the inhabitants of the city are able to access free Internet anywhere they wish inside the boundaries of the city.

Free Wi-Fi is also not free for customers. As tech evangelist Prasanto K Roy notes in his blog: “Across India, there’s rarely any free public WiFi outdoors; just the usual secured corporate signals, limited free WiFi in some airports, and ‘free’ WiFi in coffee shops to paying customers.”

“Say you get into an expensive coffee shop and spend money on coffee, they’ll give you an access code for their WiFi, usually a short-term access code. Someone always pays—in this case you, the customer, for expensive coffee,” adds Roy.

However, some believe, initiatives such as Facebook’s Internet.org (now caught in controversy in India), which is harnessing satellites, drones and lasers to spread Internet connectivity to people in the remotest parts of the world, may further drive the adoption of affordable Wi-Fi in remote parts of the world. 

Other dangers of public Wi-Fi

There are several other risks too. Wi-Fi attacks on your data can take less than 2 seconds, according to a Gartner report. Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) is being implemented at businesses and schools around the world, but 60 percent of businesses do not have a written BYOD policy. As a result, 52 percent of BYOD users connect to an open or unsecure network; and more than half of all open Wi-Fi networks are susceptible to abuse.

When you use public WiFi without any added security measures, you leak data about yourself from your device, states Sean Sullivan, F-Secure’s Security Advisor. The most dangerous thing that often happens is that user’s personal information is leaked.

“While people may readily access Wi-Fi at public hotspots, they are often unaware that hackers could actually read the text of emails sent over a POP3 network, along with the addresses of the sender and recipient, and even the password of the sender. 

“Public WiFi is not safe. But we’re not saying don’t use it, we’re saying don’t use it without proper security. A good VPN will provide encryption so even if someone tries, they can’t tap into your data,” recommends Sullivan.

The other challenge is to provide seamless experience to customers. As Paul Crutchley, strategic engagement director at the GSM Association mentioned, it is important for businesses to invest in Wi-Fi correctly, otherwise it will turn off customers. For example, if a store puts a limit on downloads – such as restricting streaming of YouTube – this could irritate customers and drive them away.

Nevertheless, customers will increasingly demand for Wi-Fi services in public places. By 2020, it is predicted that 25 Billion devices will be connected to the Internet. Already a large number of cities across the globe are offering free Internet connections through free city Wi-Fi technology. With the proliferation of cheaper smartphones and ubiquitous mobile internet access, this space is expected to become even more interesting in the coming years, believe experts.