The free-Wi-Fi advantage may be gone, but Smart Wifi is the new option
Smart Wi-Fi allows business owners to control how much bandwidth is used and gathers data on what users do
by Elizabeth Hames
Illustration Molly Little
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when workers moved out of their home offices en masse and into the coffee shop – oh wait, no it isn’t. Yeah, I’m pretty sure it was right around the time every coffee shop and restaurant chain from L.A. to Iqaluit started offering free Wi-Fi.
The free-Wi-Fi craze began in earnest in 2010, when McDonald’s began offering free and unlimited wireless Internet access at 11,500 locations in the U.S. in a ploy to draw in more customers. It was a game-changing idea. Rival Starbucks followed suit a few months later at all of its U.S. locations and 750 Canadian locations. At the time, Starbucks was struggling with rapid expansion and the recession, and the free Wi-Fi was an attempt to lure customers back. Maybe it would take some of the sting out of the cost of that mocha-frappa-whatever.
That set the standard for coffee shops everywhere, be they independent or corporate. If you weren’t offering free Wi-Fi, chances are the coffee shop across the street did, and who wouldn’t prefer Internet access with their cup of joe? Soon, anyone willing to put down $2 for a dark roast could log in, log on and spend hours staring blankly at a screen while still feeling connected to the wider community. At home, you’re just a weirdo with crumbs on your pants and too much work to do. But at the coffee shop, you’re a fully participating member of society with crumbs on your pants and too much work to do.
Good Earth, the Alberta-based coffee house franchise, recognized the lure of free Wi-Fi early on. It began offering the service at all its locations more than five years ago to gain the upper hand over its competitors. It worked well to draw more customers: students looking for a comfortable place to study, or business people looking to escape their home offices.
But now, free Wi-Fi no longer offers the competitive advantage it once did. “Today, it’s an expectation of the coffee house to have Wi-Fi,” says Gerry Docherty, president and COO of Good Earth. “It’s just a part of doing business now.”
So much so that coffee shops that don’t offer it, or have a notoriously spotty connection, are at a significant disadvantage. If you’ve ever felt the frustration of going to a coffee shop to get some work done, lining up, spending way too much on a latte and opening up your laptop only to find the Wi-Fi is down, you’ll understand why reliable Wi-Fi has become so crucial to the success of companies like Good Earth.
The same goes for other customer service-oriented businesses: hotels, doctor’s offices, restaurants, car washes – anywhere customers have a lot of downtime.
“What we’re seeing with the proliferation of devices – iPads, or smartphones – it’s almost a given that a business needs to offer this,” says Ron McKenzie, vice-president of business services at Shaw Communications. “For businesses now, their customers want to stay connected. They’re asking for these types of services.”
So, is the early business advantage of free Wi-Fi gone forever, or is there a way to get it back? McKenzie says there is, and it’s called Smart Wi-Fi. The newly released service essentially gives businesses greater control over their customer’s Wi-Fi experiences while collecting mountains of data. For example, businesses with no or unreliable Wi-Fi often receive negative reviews on sites like TripAdvisor or Yelp. Take this review of an Alberta hotel, for example: The reviewer gave the hotel a single star rating. Her biggest complaint? The Wi-Fi. “We stayed for three nights and never got a strong enough signal to connect,” reads the review from 2013. “When we’d complain to the front desk they’d blame it on the fact that the hotel was full so the wifi was in high demand. I’m sorry, but what that tells me is that you need to upgrade your equipment … it’s certainly not the fault of your guests and you shouldn’t advertise that you have wifi available if it’s that limited.”
The so-called “bandwidth hog” is a common source of strain for businesses offering free Wi-Fi through a hotspot. We’ve all seen them: that couple in the coffee shop streaming videos for hours, slowing down your Internet connection so much you can barely tweet without an error message.
McKenzie says Shaw’s SmartWiFi allows business owners to control in real time how much of the bandwidth each device can use, so each customer has the same Internet experience. And business owners can prioritize specific sites, so a customer accessing the company’s website would see their page load before that of a customer watching reruns of The West Wing.
Battling bandwidth hogs is only a fraction of what this new brand of Wi-Fi can do. We’ve all heard the term “big data,” right? It’s the collection and analysis of huge amounts of information, usually for the purpose of gaining some strategic advantage. Large corporations have had access to this data in the past, and now small businesses can have access to that information through SmartWiFi. Whenever a customer logs on to your Wi-Fi network, you will have access to information about how long a device was on the network, which sites were visited, and how much data was used (to be clear, the information is anonymous and not connected to a particular customer). Perhaps more impressive, Cisco’s smart Wi-Fi analyzes what people connected to a company’s Wi-Fi are saying about that company on public social networks and makes it available to them. “Instead of them Googling everywhere and trying to get all this information, we’ve put it on one display,” says George Manuelian, director of mobility information at Cisco.
Cisco’s Wi-Fi can also track other subjects people are talking about on social networks. With information like that, the company can really beef up its customer service game. “You’d be surprised at how many people take a picture of the bathroom and say, ‘This bathroom is terrible,’ or take a picture of the food and say, ‘This food is fantastic,’ ” Manuelian says. “Anything that’s positive you want to promote. Anything negative you want to immediately fix it.”
Companies can also use that information to target the ads it sends out to customers using its network. Say, for example, you’re the owner of a hotel and someone says the word “food” or “hungry” on Facebook while connected to your network. You can then make an ad for your hotel lounge’s dinner special appear in their Facebook feed, Manuelian says.
Moreover, smart Wi-Fi can identify any device that is searching for Wi-Fi connections within its range, so it can track how many people are in your establishment, how long they’re there and when they left (again, minus any identifying data). Manuelian says you can use this information to better understand customer traffic patterns in, say, a restaurant. By analyzing the information you collect over time, perhaps you’ll see that, say, Wednesday lunch hours are particularly busy. So you’ll know to add an extra shift on Wednesday afternoons.
“That been missing for small business,” McKenzie says. “How do they offer [free Wi-Fi], but do it through a managed, smart way that they can use to support their business.” Shaw launched SmartWiFi in November, but if its trajectory is anything like its predecessor, we could soon see it in every customer service-oriented business from L.A. to Iqaluit.