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Fear, uncertainty and data doubt hold back public Wi-Fi

Venue owners’ uncertainty and befuddlement over what they can actually do with their Wi-Fi infrastructure and the data carried over it is hindering their ability to realise the full potential of public Wi-Fi

We tend to take public Wi-Fi for granted these days. Hotspots are all around us and increasingly free to access – from your favourite store, café, hotel or airport to some passenger trains and even planes.

Venue Wi-Fi quality of service (QoS) is also increasingly robust. Mobile aggregator Devicescape demonstrated this recently when announcing that its curated virtual network (CVN) of UK public hotspots had reached half a million in just two years.

This milestone is a good indicator of the quality and maturity of Wi-Fi provision and the technology involved. It also shows how strategic Wi-Fi is becoming to venue owners as a convenience service that they simply must offer customers or visitors for browsing, emailing or using social media while on their premises.

Interestingly, Devicescape also recently surveyed high-street public Wi-Fi users to find the most popular venues, rating reliability, ease of use and overall customer experience. Although the top 10 was dominated by establishments such as Asda, Marks & Spencer and Greggs using EE or The Cloud, this initiative does offer venue owners a serious benchmarking process that they can now apply to evaluate the performance of their Wi-Fi operators.   

However, apart from very few exceptions such as Asda, which has gained explicit permission from more than three million customers to send personalised real-time in-store offers to their smartphones, most retailers and other public venue owners appear to be holding back in taking Wi-Fi-enabled customer engagement any further.

If the end game is to allow consumers to use any shopping channel when and how they like, the in-store piece of the puzzle is currently the weakest link in the chain. Yet the Wi-Fi infrastructure and analytics to fix the problem are already in place in most high-street venues.

Requesting mobile numbers can be done easily enough at the sign-up stage and provided the quid pro quo is not to spam subscribers but to deliver highly personalised customer engagement and loyalty initiatives on arrival in store, most will prefer it rather than having their loyalty cards swiped on the way out – by which time it is too late.          

Uncertainty and befuddlement

Retailers’ reluctance to go beyond bog standard Wi-Fi convenience services and just make do – at a price – with aggregated ‘anonymised data’ has nothing to do with inadequate Wi-Fi technology or the lack of retailer marketing know-how. More likely, it comes down to venue owner uncertainty and befuddlement about where they stand with operators on what they can actually do with their Wi-Fi infrastructure and the data carried over it – plus any latent fears over prosecution from customers inadvertently or deliberately downloading copyrighted material or perhaps somehow accidentally upsetting public privacy campaigners.

Clearly, the ‘sabre-rattling’ legislation of recent years can’t have helped. The Digital Economy Act 2010, for example, threatened to force ISPs to hand over IP addresses if rights owners believed unauthorised downloads may have taken place. Replacing the more draconian aspects of this act with a voluntary creative content ‘alert’ programme last year may have reassured some, but then again the ‘snooper’s charter’ – the Investigatory Powers Bill, currently in progress – may be another unsettling influence.  

The reality is that none of it has a direct bearing on whether it is OK to ask a public Wi-Fi user to provide their mobile contact details for in-venue marketing purposes. It is a personal decision and transaction between them and their chosen retailer or venue owner.        

Perhaps more UK venue owners will take heart from a recent case in Germany, where the European Court of Justice ruled that operators of free public Wi-Fi networks are not liable for any copyright infringement committed by users.

This followed a case of alleged copyright infringement between a lighting equipment retailer in Germany and Sony Music Entertainment. Sony had alleged (unsuccessfully) that a hotspot offered by the retailer was used to illegally download copyright music and should have been secured by the venue.

There is now a clear opportunity for retailers, train operators and others to optimise public Wi-Fi for their and their customers’ advantage. This must start by venues taking ownership of Wi-Fi infrastructure and aligning it to their business objectives, rather than to those of the network operators.


Graham Cove is a public Wi-Fi expert and represents Synaptix Technologies, a UK provider of managed venue network services. He previously worked at two of the largest Wi-Fi operators in the UK, as director of EE Wi-Fi and UK MD of The Cloud.

This was last published in May 2016

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