How to Monetize Free Wi-Fi

Susan Stellin reports today on the way in which hotels, airports and the like are increasingly rolling out free wi-fi in addition to their paid-for offerings. She explains:

Travelers want to log on everywhere at no charge, while hotels, airports and coffee shops are looking for a way to pay for their Wi-Fi networks as visitors increasingly use greater amounts of bandwidth.

Stellin explains that you don’t need travelers’ cash to pay for your wi-fi network: you can monetize it in other ways, like serving ads or signing people up to your loyalty program.

Omni Hotels, which used to offer free Wi-Fi, switched to a dual pricing model about 18 months ago. Now, guests can get free in-room wireless access by signing up for Omni’s Select Guest program, an option that appears on screen when guests try to log on…

Now, two-thirds of Omni’s Internet users decide to become members of the Select Guest program, while the other third pay for access.

This seems to me to be a sensible business model: a loyalty-program membership is more valuable to a hotel than a resented wi-fi charge.

Over the long term, however, I think it’s inevitable that hotels will move towards a simple free wi-fi model which doesn’t require jumping through any hoops at all: wi-fi will be like clean sheets or hot water, something which is simply included in the price of the room, whether you use it or not.

One big reason for this is that it’s cheaper. A large part of the cost of hotel wi-fi networks is the cost of tech support: they have to pay for all those phone calls from guests who are having all manner of trouble logging in and paying for access. Reducing customer-service costs is monetization, after a fashion.

And besides, hotels pride themselves on their service; it’s not service to force people to jump through all manner of hoops involving web browsers and credit cards before they can so much as check their email.

In the meantime, one thing I’d love to see would be some kind of icon attached to the with-hoops wi-fi services. If I’m looking for a wi-fi network, it’s easy to see which ones are encrypted and which are open. But of the open networks, it’s impossible to see which ones are genuinely open and which ones will take you only to a sign-on page which asks for a credit card number and which often doesn’t work. If I’m using my iPhone, for instance, I’m very unlikely to try to navigate those hoops. But if the phone thinks I’m connected to a wifi service, it won’t revert to using its cellular abilities to download data. As a result, it ends up essentially sucking air, downloading nothing at all. A network which purports to offer free wi-fi should do just that: firewalled wi-fi should look different somehow.

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