Public WiFi

The Truths And Costs Behind Free Public WiFi

Public WiFiPublic WiFi usage is growing — and how! As a result, the likelihood is that your staff are using public hotspots.  Even if they are not allowed to access work-related systems via public hotspots (or can only do so via a VPN), your staff could still be exposing their (and your) mobile devices — and by extension, your in-house systems — to risk, whether from it is malware, email phishing, or man-in-the-middle attacks.

First, some numbers: in a recent UK survey Using WiFi in Public Places, almost three-quarters of the respondents said they did it. Of who said they never use public Wi-Fi, less than a third — so just about 7 percent of respondents overall — said they didn’t use it because of security concerns. That suggests most people are not too worried about security.

The service provider that carried out the survey, Purple WiFi, also pointed out that more than 90 percent of US airports now offer free WiFi, with Las Vegas’s McCarran airport being one of the first to cover arriving and departing aircraft too, not just the airport concourses. And while it is still common in both the US and the UK to be limited to just 30 minutes of free airtime, airports are gradually increasing these limits under passenger pressure.

Around three-quarters of the people who use public Wi-Fi also said they specifically look for free WiFi when they are out and about, and that they are more likely to stay somewhere if it offers WiFi. Well, that’s good news for anyone who offers free WiFi to their customers, and that in turn is good news to anyone in IT who wants to help their users stay connected.

When asked what they use public WiFi for, 17 percent of respondents said they do banking, 87 percent check emails (without specifying private or work email), 69 percent update their social profiles, 63 percent browse the web, 14 percent look at video content — and 27 percent said they use public WiFi for work purposes.

So after hunting around to see what free WiFi is available — and hopefully not trying the Free Public WiFi hoax/scam SSID — people are quite happily logging on and then trying to get into their office IT systems.

Public WiFi was a great invention, and making it free was even better. It enables us to save money on our mobile phone subscriptions, especially when roaming, and should get us a faster connection too. That is if it is done right, of course, and as Purple WiFi’s boss Gavin Wheedon noted, it isn’t always done right, not least because providing everyone with fast, high quality access is not cheap.

But we also need to be aware of the risks and costs. Even if our users can avoid man-in-the-middle attacks and compromised access points, there is also the fact that it is free only as in “free at the point of use”. Someone still has to pay for the infrastructure and bandwidth, and that paymaster will want to get a return on their investment somehow.

This could come from getting you to stay in their café, pub, or shop a bit longer and therefore spend more; from persuading you to choose their airport or hotel instead of others; or simply by pushing adverts and apps at you. Alternatively it could be by upselling you to a paid service with better quality and more bandwidth (once you discover the free one is not much good for streamed video), or by using WiFi analytics and social media to gain customer data and market the business.

We need to be aware of this. As the saying goes, TANSTAAFL: there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. And it is all no good anyway if we don’t have systems in place to check for compromised mobile devices and to disable lost or stolen ones; plus of course, enough Internet bandwidth and a secure connection for our users to make use of.

In addition, if your site is one of the many now offering free public WiFi for guests and customers, don’t forget the need to do content filtering and comply with other relevant local rules. Lastly, there is also a lot you usefully and legally can from your visitors about their preferences, needs, and behavior via usage analytics, for example how they move around your building or shop, and what might hold their attention as they do so.

Image credit:  Fabrizio Van Marciano (500px.com) / CC-BY

About the author
Bryan Betts