Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Free WiFi Hotspots Increasingly Serve the Mobile Market

In watching the traffic on some of the wireless networks I admin, which provide free WiFi to visitors, I have noticed that a good portion consists of mobile devices rather than laptops, as the typical WiFi moocher of the past was likely to use. This makes sense now that mobile devices have taken over basic communication functions, such as email and looking up quick information.

In the list of devices, the device name typically contains "Android" or "iPad, iPhone, or iTouch". If those aren't dead giveaways, the manufacturer is often listed as Apple, HTC, Android, or something similar. Scientific? No. Rough idea? Definitely. What I find more striking is that these devices are not simply downloading a few KB here and there as they are polling email servers. Rather, they are pulling down tens and hundreds of MB of data.

This finding is significant because it means that mobile users are taking advantage of WiFi to supplement their data plans. As mobile companies move to cap data plans, heavy users have to be a bit more mindful with their big downloads.

Another issue to keep in mind is that mobile companies do not cut you off completely after you've passed your data allocation for the month; but, they do reduce your speed to a crawl. If you can imagine blazing at 4G and then being kicked down to 3G or EDGE, it is imperative to find all the WiFi.

What this means for small businesses is a temporary marketing advantage by offering free WiFi to customers. While most businesses are reluctant to provide WiFi, those that do will stand out as a preferred vendor to their customers. Once free WiFi becomes more universal, offering it will be less of an advantage; but, not having it would be a disadvantage.

The greatest WiFi benefit can be achieved by those businesses that force people to wait, such as clinics, pharmacies, auto care shops, car washes, restaurants, etc. The amenities traditionally offered are magazines and maybe even a television on a boring channel. With WiFi, your customers can watch their own videos, get work done, purchase things, read news, or whatever they do with their mobile device. The end result is that the dreaded long wait becomes tolerable.

Here is an image of the network clients of a doctor's clinic. Notice all the users are mobile devices. Obviously, people want something to do while they wait for their appointment.

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