Public Wifi

We’re finally reaching the stage where public wifi is becoming ubiquitous in London – at least when you’re indoors. It’s now quite strange to be somewhere that doesn’t have wifi available. But as it’s all supplied by commercial operators, it can all get a bit confusing. I know a few people who leave wifi turned off on their smartphones because they’d rather rely on the 3G connection (which always works) than a wifi connection that doesn’t work because they haven’t logged on to the providers service.

It would be nice if these providers all just used the standard WEP or WPA security protocols. These both prompt you for a password when you connect to the network. Your device can then store the password and always connect you whenever you’re within range. That’s probably how you have your home wifi set up.

But that’s not how the commercial providers do it. They want your to actually log in to the network. That might be so that they can trace each users’ individual network traffic. Or, sadly more often, it’s probably because they want to show you a web page covered with lots of lovely adverts (or collect your email address so they can spam you). This is a rather broken approach as it assumes that the first network request that you make will be to a web page – so that they can interrupt the request and show you their login page instead. Often your first network request might be an app (perhaps Twitter or Foursquare) which won’t know what to do when it gets a login page back rather than the app-specific data that it was expecting.

Recent Android versions try to deal with this (perhaps other platforms do too). As soon as you connect to a network, they make a request and try to work out whether you need to log in. If you do, they will tell you so. It’s all rather non-standard, but it’s the device makers trying to make the best of a bad situation.

If that was the worst of it, then public wifi wouldn’t be too bad. Most people would be happy to use it. But there are two other things that some wifi operators do which serve no purpose other than annoying people.

Remember I mentioned how the network will interrupt your first request and redirect it to the login page? Once you’ve logged in, a polite service will complete your original request and redirect you to the page you were originally trying to visit. A rude service (and there are plenty of them about) will complete the request by redirecting you to another page on their web site – assuming, no doubt, that you can never show people too many adverts.

That’s really annoying. But there’s one more thing that wifi operators do which makes that pale into insignificance.

They make you log in again after a certain period of time. This makes me really angry. Picture the scene. You go to a pub and the second thing you do (after buying a round, of course) is to check in on Foursquare. For that you need to connect to the network, so you jump through all the connection hoops. Then you put the phone back in your pocket and start to enjoy a conversation with your friends. Half an hour later it becomes vital that you know the exact date that “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” reached number one. So you reach for your phone to look it up on Wikipedia. Only to find that you need to go through all the log in rigmarole again.

This kind of experience is commonplace. And it leads to one of two outcomes. Either people turn their wifi off because it’s all too much of a faff (and then venues start to decide that it’s not worth having wifi as no-one uses it) or, alternatively, people keep jumping through the hoops and come to believe that this broken and frustrating experience is just how public wifi has to be. And that’s just not true.

Do you run public wifi? How is it set up? Please consider making it as easy as possible for people to use your wifi. What’s the point of annoying your customers?

18 thoughts on “Public Wifi

  1. I run a public hotspot from each of my company offices. I use Meraki access points which although are a bit pricey, they do the job SO well. I simply have a splash landing page when users connect, with a short blurb about what my company does, with a “continue” button at the bottom. No complicated registrations, no logins, just a “continue” button. The session expires after one week, where they just click continue again. My networks seem very popular even in rural areas and each one has on average 15 regular users with a few people ‘driving by’. And even before a user opens the browser to click continue, you can still use apps without having to do that.

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