A Brief History of Public Use/Guest WiFi

Remember back in 2000, when this brand new organization called “The Wi-Fi Alliance” was formed?

Most people don’t, and most people born after 1990 will give you a very strange look if you tell them that “WiFi ” was not a thing during the Clinton administration. And once WiFi started to get traction, it took a while before it became ubiquitous. Today, WiFi sits below food and shelter for basic first world necessity, but it wasn’t always that way.

And then there’s “guest WiFi,” which is even more complex, and that’s where it gets interesting for small businesses who now must provide WiFi for their customers and guests, but have no way of paying for it or monetizing it.WiFi

There’s never been any means of real engagement with guests who use the “free” WiFi at a small business.

Early on, companies such as Boingo & Aircell used to charge for WiFi, but Starbucks and others broke that model by eating the costs and giving it away for free to turn visitors into customers and customers into coffee addicts.

That strategy worked for large chains like Starbucks, Chick-Fil-A, McDonalds, and others. But the single location small business has a harder time paying for all that bandwidth and gear, not to mention keeping the WiFi up and running. God help you if your WiFi goes out today!

So, now that the pay-per-use model of delivering WiFi is gone, small business owners have to try alternative methods to pay for, monetize, or at least produce some meaningful value from the “free” WiFi that they are now bound to provide their customers and visitors.

Immediately after the pay-per-use business model went away, businesses implemented what is known as the “captive portal,” which is a simple forced browser session that captures some information from the user, like name, email, and maybe phone number.

But that’s where it ended. Captive portals, while not user friendly at all, are very simple and effective for collecting user info, but are not effective at all as a marketing or engagement tool. They collect email addresses and show static, usually irrelevant advertisements. Networking manufacturers like Cisco sell access points, and it’s up to the retail operator to monetize the use of WiFi in some way.

Skyrocketing mobile use and the ubiquity of WiFi present a huge opportunity. There are over 2 billion smartphones on the planet and that number is set to grow to 6 Billion by the year 2020. One of the two largest smartphone manufacturers has already preconfigured their phones to seek out WiFi and automatically switch from cellular data to WiFi to help save you from eating up your data plan. Thanks, Apple!

Once your visitors’ phones have switched over to your on-premise WiFi, how will you engage them while they are on your premises? We’ve created an on-premise solution to answer that question for you. Click here to learn more.