How to Offer Free WiFi

1:10 PM -- The amazing cost structure of metro-scale WiFi allows this service to be provisioned and extended much more cost-effectively than any other large-scale communications network. Many municipalities are looking for ways to offer free service, both to residents who otherwise wouldn't be customers because of the ongoing expense, and to visitors and others who are becoming disinclined to spend $8.95 to check their email.

What I recommend is a tiered set of services, as follows. Note that all of these can be provisioned on a single infrastructure using different SSIDs.

The Municipal Tier: Typically operating in the 4.9GHz spectrum reserved for this purpose, this tier features high-priority, high-security service to authorized municipal users -- police, fire, building inspectors, etc.

The Premium User Tier: This service is just below the priority of the Municipal Tier, and features full security via user names and passwords authenticated by 802.1x/EAP or a similar mechanism. Hardware tokens could be provided for a fee.

The Regular User Tier: This is unsecured and priced like today's public-access WiFi services -- say, $30/month, $5/day, or $1/hour. It features full Internet and email access.

The Subsidized User Tier: Same as the above, but fees paid by Premium users are used to subsidize the cost, and thus lower fees may be charged to certain classes of users based on income or other factors. Subsidies could also come from downtown associations or chambers of commerce, among other entities.

The Free Tier: This low-priority service restricts access to certain sites and may even be a captive portal or walled garden only.

I have also toyed with the idea of a tier supported entirely by advertising, as was done during the early days of the Internet. This probably isn't going to work well, because advertising is irritating and will remain such until (a) the volume of ads becomes more reasonable (not much chance of that anytime soon); (b) ads become more entertaining (check out the recent Fedex "caveman" ad -- I've yet to stop laughing); or (c) we can target ads to those interested in the product or service being advertised. Such an approach is indeed possible and may open another avenue to "free" service.

— Craig Mathias is Principal Analyst at the Farpoint Group , an advisory firm specializing in wireless communications and mobile computing. Special to Unstrung

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