Providing free Wi-Fi gets tricky for businesses

By Rick Barrett

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MCT)

Published: Wednesday, July 9 2014 9:19 a.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, July 9 2014 9:19 a.m. MDT

Wi-Fi hot spots can ease boredom while waiting for a service, such as a dentist appointment, and sometimes they help keep customers at a business longer so they can spend more money.

Some of the growth in hot spot locations has been fueled by more people working in nontraditional settings, including freelance contractors who hang out at coffee shops with a laptop computer and mobile phone as their office tools.

If you can work like that, it might as well be in a place with good coffee and food, said Barry Orton, a telecommunications professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

You can only work from home for so long, Orton said, before you have to get dressed, get away from the dog, and step away from other domestic distractions.

With the changes, however, come the hot spot management issues.

Madison Sourdough keeps its free hot spot turned on Monday through Friday, when the cafe isn’t serving a special brunch and there’s not as much competition for tables.

Also, Lehrentz says he’s creating a conference room where customers can have business meetings.

He’s not going to charge customers for Wi-Fi access, even if it could keep some people from occupying a table for several hours while they watch videos on their laptop or tablet.

Asking people to pay for what’s become a free service at most places would send the wrong message to customers, Lehrentz said.

“As a customer, I was always annoyed by that, and I avoided those places,” he added.

AT&T, Verizon and other telecom providers have set up thousands of hot spots for their customers, partly because it takes some of the pressure off their cellular phone networks.

Comcast Corp., which has some cable and Internet presence in Wisconsin, recently launched a system that will turn millions of its customers’ home wireless routers — units provided by the company — into a big network of Wi-Fi hot spots. The hot spots are designed primarily to provide visitors to a Comcast customer’s home the ability to access the Internet without having to use that customer’s password.

If the visitors are Comcast customers, they’ll be able to connect to the network free. Non-customers will be able to use the hot spots as well, getting a limited amount of time for free before they’ll have to pay a fee.

Customers can opt out of having their home router in the network, but otherwise they’re included by default.

Comcast did not return calls, but industry experts say it’s an attempt by the company — which is seeking federal regulators’ permission to acquire Time Warner Cable — to compete better with AT&T and other wireless carriers.

Plans for blanketing Milwaukee and other cities with municipal Wi-Fi have largely been dropped, not because the service wasn’t wanted, but because it was too expensive for local governments to establish and operate.

Some telecom experts say businesses are more likely to make Wi-Fi systems a success because they have a financial incentive to offer the service. New systems could include hot spot zones where multiple businesses share costs and operations decisions.

As the technology and systems improve, Wi-Fi users could someday go from one hot spot to another without having to log in again.

“Today, it’s still tough to move seamlessly between them ... but we think the ubiquitous coverage that Wi-Fi can offer will be pretty compelling,” said Parimi of Time Warner Cable.

©2014 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Visit the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at www.jsonline.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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