Free Wi-Fi Hotspots – A Growing Trend

Free Wi-Fi

Free WiFi Hot spots are growing

More businesses and their patrons are taking advantage of the benefits of public free Wi-Fi than ever, although security concerns remain

More businesses and their patrons are taking advantage of the benefits of free public Wi-Fi than ever, although security concerns remain

AS MORE BUSINESSES TAKE ADVANTAGE of the benefits of offering free Wi-Fi and customers’ expectations increasingly include it, the web of hot spots grows.

Who Benefits from Free Wi-Fi?

From coffee shops and bars to car repair shops and the government sector, organizations benefit in a variety of ways from offering Wi-Fi. That may be in terms of customer loyalty or the ability to harvest analytical data on patrons for more targeted advertising.

Customers, including a growing number of freelance workers, and those who can’t afford Wi-Fi at home or have unlimited cellular data plans, find the service valuable. As its use grows more popular, security remains one of the top drawbacks of free Wi-Fi connections.

Secure or not, it’s a popular way to get online. A Cisco study predicted Wi-Fi hotspots will increase by six times from 94 million in 2016 to 541.6 million in 2021.

For its part, Comcast in 2016 began a “collaboration” with gas station-convenience store chain Wawa, to offer free Wi-Fi at its 700-plus East Coast locations, including all Florida stores.

Lehne Burger co-owners Mike Lehnberg and Christina Possiel find offering free Wi-Fi helps customers check in and review the restaurant online. EVAN WILLIAMS / FLORIDA WEEKLY

Social Media

Free Wi-Fi helps enable customers at Lehne Burger in Cape Coral log on to social media accounts to post reviews.

“When you offer free Wi-Fi it’s a kind of advertising,” said Christina Possiel, co-owner of Lehne Burger with Mike Lehnberg. “They (customers) go on Facebook, social media, and say ‘I checked in with Lehne Burger.’ And it’s easier for the customers to leave a review and recommend us, as well, on Trip Advisor and Yelp. That’s a big thing for us.”

Across the street at No. 3 Craft Brews, at the bar Cape resident Bruce Poff was using the free Wi-Fi for “Facebooking.” Although cellular networks also offer him an easy way to get online with his phone, using free Wi-Fi when possible helps him keep his data use within the limits of his phone plan.

Is Wi-Fi something he now normally expects to be widely available?

“Yes,” he said. “Because we’re not unlimited data, so I like to piggyback any chance I get.”

The bartender said that to log on customers used to have to enter one of those long, computer-generated passwords that staff nicknamed The Sobriety Test. Now it’s a thankfully shorter and more memorable “craftnotcrap.”

Increase your offices using free Wi-Fi

Freelance writer and Florida Weekly contributor Glenn Miller filed the story about passwords that appears on the front page of this edition on his aging but reliable Apple laptop on a recent morning from one of his favorite hotspots, a Starbucks off College Parkway in Fort Myers.

In the morning he typically likes to grab a table outside and uses the free Wi-Fi for googling, emails or sometimes grading student papers submitted online in his role as a journalism preceptor at Florida Gulf Coast University.

“It’s one of my offices,” he said. “I joke I’ve got several offices.”

At Bad Ass Coffee in Naples, barista and high school senior Amelia Maynor uses the Wi-Fi during her free time to finish up online homework assignments in different subjects — Spanish, economics, government and astronomy.

“I’ll come here on my days off and I’ll do my studies here,” she said, taking a break from her desktop at home. “Sometimes sitting at the desktop it just strains my eyes. Sometimes I’ll come here and I can just stretch it out.”

Customers log on to the guest account and enter a password that’s posted around the shop.

“We have regulars who come in for a cup of coffee and do work on their computer, for sure,” she said, and tourists often ask for Wi-Fi to look up events and places to visit in the area.

Other Business joining in

The Celtic Ray Pub in Punta Gorda started offering free Wi-Fi to customers in the early- to mid-2000s, said owner Kevin Doyle. There is not a password and anyone is free to log on.

“People (were) very surprised in the beginning that we had it,” he said.

Free Long Distance calling through WhatsApp

Mr. Doyle uses it to make long-distance phone calls on WhatsApp.

“I have family in Australia and England and Ireland,” he said. “I can call them and it’s free because if you’re near a hotspot then there’s no toll.”

He welcomes people to use Celtic Ray’s Wi-Fi as long as they’d like unless it gets especially busy in the restaurant. That’s no different than his pre-Wi-Fi era policy.

“Everybody should feel comfortable, stay as long as they want, leave when they want,” he said. “It used to be in 1997 people would come in and read the newspaper all day and we’d say, fine, unless we need the table.”

The Lee County Library System offers free Wi-Fi in each of its locations to patrons during library hours. Depending on the location, service is provided by Comcast, CenturyLink or Lee County’s own fiber-optic internet connectivity.

At Fort Myers Regional Library the Wi-Fi hours also extend to midnight and are available outside the library’s front doors in the Cornog Plaza.

Some of the people who use it include people who don’t have Wi-Fi at home and need to apply for a job, or readers who need to download an eBook, said Anita Pintado, district manager of the Lee County Library System:

“And there’s a lot of people who work at home who get bored of being at home and they need a change of scenery, so they’ll come to the library and use it there.”

Security Concerns using free Wi-Fi connections

They connect using their devices to the library Wi-Fi by accepting a “terms of use” agreement when prompted including recognition that “The County’s wireless network is not secure,” as is the case with most public Wi-Fi spots.

Secured, or encrypted, web pages can be identified because they include “https” (the “s” stands for secured) at the beginning of the web address, the Federal Trade Commission says.

In fiscal year 2016-17, Ms. Pintado said, Lee County library visitors logged on through portal 899 a total of 804 times. It was the first year that the number of log-ins through the library Wi-Fi portal was collected.

Christine Wright-Isak, Ph.D., a marketing professor at Florida Gulf Coast University since 2004 who specializes in branding and communications issues, said that in addition to some of the most commonly known spots such as coffee shops, offering free Wi-Fi is worth the cost for many businesses where people tend to sit and wait.

“Any of the medical care centers where you have to wait to see the doctor or nurse,” Professor Wright-Isak said. “Any car dealership service area or local mechanic that lets you wait for like an oil change or something like that. Wi-Fi is a big advantage to making that time go a little better.”

Other Business Options

A CenturyLink representative said that the ballpark cost per month for small businesses with up to 10 employees to offer free Wi-Fi, depending on how it is set up, would be $75 to $125.

A Comcast representative responded to a question about cost that “billing for Comcast Business customers is dependent on a variety of factors, including the business’s size, needs and promotional offers.”

Even for customers who don’t often use it, Professor Wright-Isak adds, it can add to the perception that a business is thoughtful when it comes to its customers’ needs.

“I personally like to read a detective novel when I’m waiting for an oil change,” she said. “But on the other hand, if I’m preparing an exam and need to read it through one more time it’s nice to call up my Wi-Fi and (know) I can look at it.”

Fort Myers Beach

On Fort Myers Beach, Tre and Amy Gillette own Tuckaway Cafe. Through Comcast, they have a Wi-Fi password and guest account for customers, and a separate Wi-Fi they use to run their business with more security protections and broadband capability.

“I think when people come in the restaurants, especially a cafe like ours, they do expect to be able to access a wireless internet,” Mr. Gillette said.

“For one, we’re a tourist destination so people need to stay wired in to what’s going on at home and events around the world. And a lot of people make plans on their phones and using their laptops in our restaurant.”

CenturyLink’s president of local government and medium-to-small markets, Vernon Irvin, promoted Wi-Fi for customers in a statement last year.

“The bottom line?” he wrote. “Provide quality Wi-Fi — a service your customers will almost certainly use — and you will build rapport, gain customer loyalty and boost your revenue.”

He also pointed out that business clients will be able to access data and analytics from customers who sign on, including the numbers of new and repeat visitors, and the sites they use.

Comcast offers business customers similar options.

A typical service “allows business owners to personalize their Wi-Fi network landing pages with special offers for customer and increase engagement by linking to the company’s social media profiles,” a representative wrote, “plus it provides reports to help them better understand their customers through demographics like average shopping times and much more.”

Source: The Florida Weekly

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