5 Problems to Avoid When Offering Free Wi-Fi

by Robert Moskowitz on September 25, 2013
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If you run a business where customers are likely to linger, offering free Wi-Fi access can help you build loyalty and boost sales. But you can’t just set up a wireless network and forget about it. You must be on the lookout for a few potential problems — and take steps to prevent and solve them.

Here are five of the biggest issues to look out for.

1. The network frequently fails or isn’t secure.

Once customers grow accustomed to using your Wi-Fi connection, they will be extremely disappointed whenever it goes down. If it happens too often, they may take their business elsewhere. They may also blame you if the network gets hacked.

So, before you offer free Wi-Fi to customers, check with your internet service provider to make sure you can provide reliable service. Find out how many users you can support simultaneously, for example, whether you can install “parental” controls at the ISP level, whether video streams can get priority, and whether you’ll pay extra for too much data transfer. After all, you want to strengthen customers’ confidence in your business, not weaken it.

2. Your Wi-Fi hotspot attracts squatters.

Some people may use (or try to use) your wireless network without buying very much, or anything at all. These are the same freeloaders who cause retailers to post signs such as “Restrooms Are for Customers Only.”

You can take the same approach to Wi-Fi access. Or you can try to convert them into customers. Use signage to explain that Wi-Fi is an expense, and that you’d like your Wi-Fi users to purchase enough from you to help you stay in business. A few squatters may leave in a huff, but a significant percentage will become regular customers.

3. There’s a shortage of bandwidth.

Every computer and smartphone that connects to your Wi-Fi network adds to its total data load. If you don’t pay for sufficient bandwidth, your users will be dissatisfied (no one wants to use a slow-as-molasses internet connection), and the whole point of the exercise will be lost. In general, you probably want to provide about 120 kilobits per second for each user you plan to support at one time. Ten users will need 1.2 megabits per second. 20 users will need double that. Once you know how much you need, compare prices among local internet service providers at that bandwidth level.

4. You’ve inadvertently made your business network vulnerable. 

Google recently paid a $7 million fine for sending its mapping vehicles down city streets and scooping up data from every unsecured Wi-Fi network they encountered. The obvious lesson: When you leave your Wi-Fi network open to strangers, there’s no limit to the data they might grab.

Prevent digital intrusions by maintaining separate Wi-Fi and business networks. Install a Wi-Fi hotspot just for customers. Protect your company’s internal networks by using different internet access points, passwords, and security technologies that are designed strictly for you and your employees.

5. You give customers more than they want or need.

There’s little point in delivering a service customers won’t use. So, before you offer free Wi-Fi, ask the people who frequent your business some basic questions.

  • Would they appreciate free Wi-Fi?
  • How long would they likely use Wi-Fi in one sitting?
  • What would they use Wi-Fi for?
  • Would they prefer a password-protected hotspot or one that’s completely open?

Providing free Wi-Fi can make your business more attractive to customers — as long as your network is reliable, reasonably secure, and otherwise meets their expectations.

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