Public Wi-Fi is beginning to find its way into every corner of the UK. It is no longer the domain of the American-style coffee shop, with pubs, retailers and even theme parks offering their own connections.
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However, this is not enough for the data-hungry devices in most people’s pockets, and both consumers and business users are looking for connections on the move, not just over an espresso.
Technology has now been developed to take advantage of existing residential Wi-Fi connections, enabling customers signed up for home broadband deals with their internet service provider (ISP) to use other customers' routers to connect to the internet on the move.
In the UK, BT has its Fon offering, in France there are similar deals available from three providers, and now a Swedish firm called Anyfi Networks is testing its own software to enable the process without having to sign in through a web portal each time you want to connect to a different network.
The idea makes sense. As Anyfi says on its website, why invest billions of dollars in beefing up cellular networks for mobile data when there are Wi-Fi networks with plenty of spare capacity everywhere? However, not everyone is so keen.
What about security?
Firstly, there is the security aspect. We often hear horror stories of what can happen to personal data if you don’t protect your Wi-Fi connection, but by signing up to a service like this, it may feel like you are throwing open your doors to prospective cybercriminals.
However, all the firms offering these services claim security is their number one priority and they go to great measures to keep users safe.
Anyfi said its software creates a virtual access port to keep visitors away from the home connection entirely. The solution also routes the customer back to make its device think it is on its home Wi-Fi network. As a result, it puts the same security measures in place as the customer uses at home, ensuring mobiles and tablets are protected from insecure Wi-Fi.
Likewise, when a BT user shares their connection, it is over a separate channel and does not mix the external user with the home customer, according to the telco.
What about performance?
If security is not an issue, what about performance? Surely passing on a portion of your bandwidth to the public is going to damage your experience on the web?
Again, however, those behind the technology say no. Both BT and Anyfi said they prioritise any data requests coming from the home environment, with the former claiming it is such a small amount of bandwidth that no effect would be felt by the user paying for the service anyway.
Of course, if so little bandwidth is being siphoned off, there are questions on how reliable the portable connections will be as well. But for someone passing homes in business hours and checking their office e-mail when most are out at work, there should not be too many barriers to performance.
You shall have Wi-Fi wherever you go
What will win people round from all of these issues is the ease of use. The prospect of having Wi-Fi wherever you go with – in Anyfi’s case – a seamless transition between networks, will appeal to the social network-frenzied consumer as much as the work-e-mail-obsessed professional on the go.
Björn Smedman, CEO of Anyfi Networks, told Computer Weekly that Europe was much more positive about the trade-off, so the roll-out and adoption could be much faster on our shores.
“It’s a little to do with culture,” he said. “The security of the product is perfect, but the psychology of the solution could be improved.
“Some people act instinctively, to say they do not want to use this type of solution, but we are more open to it in the EU perhaps.”
Keep paying broadband customers happy
The key is in implementation. BT faced a backlash from customers when Computer Weekly discovered it was automatically opting users into Fon, with only very tiny smallprint detailing the service and a long line of URLs and website searches required to find out how to turn it off.
Other ISPs and mobile operators should learn from this lesson and be open with their customers. The conversation may begin with the positives that opening up your Wi-Fi can bring, but they must fill in all the blanks so customers are happy and aware of what they are signing up for.
If this rule is followed and the technologies continue to get easier to use, this could well be the path of all future public Wi-Fi where it is better to share.