As WiFi explodes in use and points of access, the challenge becomes how to secure users, manage data flow and even how to go from free to fee.
Naturally, our world is defined by connectivity: we live and work on our broadband or 4G networks, our devices have become the steering wheel to drive on these digital fast lanes. But consider those roads for a moment. You have a mobile lane, a fast and untethered high speed freeway which gives the maximum convenience as it’s on your device, the signal spread over base stations through 4G (and soon 5G). But that convenience comes at a price (literally) as well as performance limitations compared to WiFi. Home or work WiFi LAN is faster and certainly more cost effective in terms of data downloads but its limitation is one of range: once out of coverage your back onto your 4G network.
The answer to these two sets of constraints? Public WiFi: multi-access point, wide geographically dispersed wireless access that takes the load off telco carriers and allows users the ability to high speed surf. We’ve all used public WiFi be that at the coffeeshop, mall or airport; its presence is becoming almost an expected service, so much so that 43% of all Internet traffic goes across WiFi with that expected to rise to 50% by 2020 to an amazing zettabyte of traffic. What’s a zettabyte you say? Let’s put it this way: all the traffic ever to across the Internet since its inception will be surpassed by WiFi… in one year. In late 2016, The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker made the dramatic goal for EU WiFi: “We propose today to equip every European village and every city with free wireless internet access around the main centres of public life by 2020,” he told an audience in Strasbourg, France. With Facebook putting dirigibles into the area to create mass WiFi, cities like Mumbai going ‘smart’ with digital enabling of its population (Mumbai signed up 23,000 users in one week this January who consumed 2 terabyte of data) it’s clear that public WiFi will play a greater role in our lives, both work and personally.
“WiFi was a natural thing to do, to create a complete delivery to our customers,” says Mario Hellqvist, the CEO of Datacom AB, one of the leaders in public WiFi in Sweden with a number of large events managed including the Eurovision Song Contest, the Volvo Ocean Challenge and others, he explains of the firm’s expertise and foray in the field. “We’ve worked with it for a long time, in different ways, both inside and outside, both small installations and large. Both secured and unsecured,” he says with a smile.
That smile comes from the fact that what many people forget about public WiFi – security – is becoming of utmost importance. The reason? What cybersecurity insiders call the Threat Surface: the amplification of points of vulnerability that is brought on by A) the number of devices and connections that are simultaneously communicating and B) the vectors that are accessing and accessible to those connections. For example, a virus, introduced to the WiFi network from an infected phone, quickly penetrates the unsecured network which in turn infects devices coming onto the network which in turn infects other networks etc. A new survey of more than 2,000 business users by networking company Xirrus finds that while 91 percent of respondents don’t believe public Wi-Fi is secure, but 89 percent use it anyway. “If you go to the Mall of Scandinavia, in Stockholm, you have free WiFi but you must also be aware of security for you as the user,” Hellqvist says passionately, bolstering the case for operators to employ security solutions.
While security is paramount and maybe neglected by users, the experience of the WiFi is certainly a base demand of consumers – even for a free service – and is expected to be of high quality and without interruption. “Thousands and thousands of users expect everything to work. Users today are getting more and more advanced. Social media and all the apps that we use on phones and devices just sucks out a lot of energy from the WiFi network. It’s a challenge to build big public solutions,” Robert Carenfelt, Datacom AB’s senior partner and sales manager notes at this challenge. As the bandwidth gets congested, especially with streaming services like Netflix and VoIP or video messaging, operators are increasingly looking to manage this service which is why free WiFi is slowly becoming modified. Already, we see this as a standard situation for hotels where they charge for higher data speeds and downloads but slowly, the realization that traffic shaping and bandwidth regulation is an excellent way to keep free users with a basic service and premium customers with the quality of service they demand.
All in all, though WiFi will grow by leaps and bounds (433M new hotspots are expected by 2020) the prediction is that more emphasis will fall on security as well as managing the service with improved technology and opportunities to create revenues while improving service, both to non-paying and premium customers.