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Lee Badman
Lee Badman
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Social WiFi Sign-In: Benefits With A Dark Side

Providing social networking credentials to get free WiFi access gives merchants a wealth of customer data for marketing and is a boon for managed service providers. But is the price too high for customers?

To say that worlds are colliding in the network space is a gross understatement. Take social WiFi. When social networking credentials are used to sign in to wireless networks, lots of wheels are set in motion. Users get WiFi access, merchants reap customer data for fine-tuned marketing, and integrators can expand their services.

At the same time, social WiFi sign-in raises many unsettling privacy concerns. Let's take a look at the upside -- and downside -- of this fast-growing trend in the wireless world.

Not so long ago, those of us who run wireless networks didn't have a lot of options when it came to providing wireless guest access. The de facto standard required "an insider" to provide guest login credentials to our visitors. Some of us developed our own self-sponsor mechanisms that gave guests a way to get on without our help while providing some data point for us to track should trouble arise, such as a cellphone number to text a user's password. Once connected, guests went about their business, while administrators collected only enough logs to report on network utilization.

Now, with social WiFi, you use your Twitter or Facebook account to log in to a public wireless hotspot. Though "public wireless hotspots" might belong to single mom-and-pop establishments, they are frequently counted by the hundreds or thousands for chain establishments and thus rise to "distributed enterprise" status. Social WiFi is at home in settings of all sizes, where users want to connect to free WiFi and save their data minutes while they shop, eat, and socialize. And this is where things get interesting.

AirTight Networks has led the charge into social WiFi guest access, bundling it into a subscription along with retail analytics, wireless PCI compliance, and various managed services options. Here's the idea: You go to a local local AirTight-provisioned environment and log in to local guest WiFi with your Facebook credentials. In exchange for free wireless, you enter a technical and business arrangement that permits the wireless provider to gather your data for marketing purposes.

Your account settings and personal data are culled and used to enhance your experience with personalized coupon offers and faster service. Merchants tailor their products and promotions based on what they learn about you, and AirTight's managed services partners find a new revenue stream in monthly plan fees.

In some ways, everyone wins with social WiFi. Merchants get a lot of bang for their marketing and social media bucks; they run ads on Facebook and see how you respond when on the premises. They pipe background music selections based on your past Spotify selections. They see what age/gender demographics are trending well and which ones require a new marketing strategy. Customers get free WiFi plus a personalized shopping experience.

At the same time, integrators can stretch their services. Social WiFi moves them beyond simply providing access to wireless clients and gets them into the business of retail analytics and social media marketing, along with cloud services and PCI compliance.

It's a new day for wireless networking, but no IT paradigm is without tradeoffs. As innocuous as signing into guest wireless with social media credentials sounds, the implications are many and concerning. Yes, we live in an age where we're hyper-sensitive to privacy, yet many of us put it all out there on our social media accounts. As strange as it seems, despite the wide-open nature of our social media personas, we still expect a modicum of control over how our information gets used.

Social WiFi undercuts that odd, fragile handle we have on our social media data to monetize and upsell us in ways that don't make me really comfortable. Once the data is mined and conclusions are drawn from it, we become new people in the eyes of the social WiFi provider, with no control over how the process presents us.

We become scrutinized, and perhaps all our contacts are also scrubbed. Then, whatever package of information comes out of the process ends up living in dark corners of the provider realm that aren't familiar to us. I'm not sure whether or how often this information might get sold, which is one aspect of the whole consumer analytics process that I've never heard explained or defended to my liking. In the end, I'm not keen on signing away the mineral rights to my social environment for free WiFi and a desert coupon.

Social WiFi is interesting, innovative, and, for some businesses, potentially profitable. But for customers, this WiFi may come at too high a price.

Lee is a Network Engineer and Wireless Technical Lead for a large private university. He also teaches classes on networking, wireless network administrtaion, and wireless security. Lee's technical background includes 10 years in the US Air Force as an Electronc Warfare ... View Full Bio
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MarciaNWC
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MarciaNWC,
User Rank: Strategist
5/21/2014 | 4:21:43 PM
Re: Privacy concerns
Thanks, that's great to hear! Let us know if there are any other topics you'd be interested in reading about on the site.
gp778
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gp778,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/20/2014 | 2:32:54 AM
Re: Privacy concerns

It is rarely that I feel compelled to touch upon articles, but your material is content-worthy. Thanks for being so much conscientious in regards to what you compose.
MarciaNWC
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MarciaNWC,
User Rank: Strategist
5/12/2014 | 11:25:22 AM
Re: No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
Thanks for bringing the discussion back to the important issues you raised in your blog post Lee. So much aggragated data in a third-party's hands is a major concern.
lbadman132
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lbadman132,
User Rank: Ninja
5/12/2014 | 10:59:18 AM
Re: No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
Just a reminder- this is not an AirTight advertising board- starting to stretch the bounds of good taste.

"Frontera in turn gets monthly recurring revenues, and expects that by the end of the year, this new service will account for 20% of all of their service revenues. This would represent 20 percent compound monthly growth rate (CMGR), vs nine per cent CMGR for their traditional services and four percent for their integration business."

So now integrators "own" large amounts of customer data? And this shouldn't concern anyone? How well do you know your integrator? What qualifies someone to be an integrator? The add campaigns around social media- including by AirTight- always lead with how flippin' much money everyone makes off this great new model, and puts little importance on the client end. We're not talking about privacy of individual clients- we're talking about aggregated data sets in lots of new hands. With all of the great new revenue being made here in this "everyone wins" model, clients should be getting paid to use the Wi-Fi. 
KseniaCoffman01
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KseniaCoffman01,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/11/2014 | 6:28:53 PM
Re: No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
matthewnorwood, yes, Taco Bell was a brand-wide deployment for AirTight, managed by the central IT organization in Louisville, KY. 

But further to the discussion, I'm quite certain that one of the input's into Lee Badman's story was AirTight's case study on the deployments in McAllen TX by our partner Frontera Consulting

The point of the story was that enterprise-grade Wi-Fi with integrated analytics and social media *is* now avaialble to mom-and-pop stores (in Frontera's example, it was husband-and-wife team who own SALT: New American Table and house. wine & bistro), through savvy integrators such as Frontera. 

Frontera charges $399 to 699 *monthly* for their social media management service + Wi-Fi. I was surprised at how hight these numbers were, but that's what nation-wide social media agencies charge retail business for managing their social media presence. 

For the same money, Frontera's customers get not only a social media management service, but also AirTight's guest Wi-Fi, retail analytics, social sign-in, and wireless PCI compliance – all from a single provider, with local support.

Frontera in turn gets monthly recurring revenues, and expects that by the end of the year, this new service will account for 20% of all of their service revenues. This would represent 20 percent compound monthly growth rate (CMGR), vs nine per cent CMGR for their traditional services and four percent for their integration business. 

My point is that enterprise-grade, secure Wi-Fi, social integration and analytics service is indeed accessible to small independent retailers through innovative resellers, and is advantageous for both. 

You can check out the full story here: 

Social Wi-Fi and Analytics Deliver Dividends for Local Businesses 

http://blog.airtightnetworks.com/social-wi-fi-and-analytics-deliver-dividends-for-local-businesses/
Susan Fogarty
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Susan Fogarty,
User Rank: Strategist
5/10/2014 | 1:12:02 PM
Re: No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
Well I am glad to know you have been lurking! The bathroom thing also irks me. My kids are old enough to fend for themselves now, but my I find myself often hunting for a restroom for my husband, who apparently drinks far to much beer for the size of his bladder ;)

And sometimes I am amazed at the places where WiFi is not available. Recently I had a late flight leaving a conference, so I decided to just hang out in the convention center after the show and get some work done. Wrong -- once the conference folks cleared out, there was no Internet service, so I had to head to the airport, where the service was terrible. That didn't work out so well.
matthewnorwood
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matthewnorwood,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/10/2014 | 1:17:59 AM
Re: No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
I think you may have misinterpreted my stance on this. :) I never said that I would drop a cheap AP onto a network serving POS(Point of Sale) systems used by retail outlets. I was just making the point that a cheap broadband connection and a cheap AP can serve small locations just fine. The cost associated with that is simply paying the monthly cable/DSL bill. I am not advocating internal and guest traffic sharing the same Wi-Fi on an AP you would buy at the local brick and mortar retailer(e.g. Best Buy, Target, WalMart).

Small stores don't usually have the technical and financial means to support any sort of wireless infrastructure. If we are talking about a more structured company, that is a different story. The Taco Bell about 2 miles down the road from my house has an AirTight AP right above the cash registers. I am pretty sure that the decision made around that platform was done up in Louisville,KY where the parent company is located. They would have staff that could maintain that type of equipment, whereas a smaller independent retailer would not. The company I work for, which sells for Aerohive, Aruba, and Cisco when it comes to wireless, would not even deal with a small independent retailer since it would cost too much for our services and the amount of money you make selling a single AP isn't worth the effort required to implement it properly(security, coverage/capacity planning, etc).

It always comes down to cost for the smaller retailers, and I don't think a lot of them are interested in paying more than $100 for an AP. They also don't have the time and/or expertise to ensure that system is running the proper security required for PCI compliance.

We're looking at two different kinds of buyers here. There are the kind that buy from you and use VAR's like my employer, and the kind that think Linksys and Netgear are good enough for their customers to check e-mail and browse the web. Of course, I could be wrong. For all I know, there are tons of "mom and pop" retailers with cloud-managed AP's. I just think the majority of the smaller ones would consider the cost of that to be too much just to offer free Wi-Fi to customers.
KseniaCoffman01
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KseniaCoffman01,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/9/2014 | 6:11:28 PM
Re: No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
In response to matthewnorwood, we at AirTight *would not* recommend a consumer grade AP in a business environment, especially in a retail setting subject to PCI compliance requirements. Improperly configured, consumer-grade APs are an attack vector. We hear a lot about the big data breaches, but many more smaller ones occur on a daily basis. Often that means that a small business in question simply shuts down - they don't have the resources to cover the fines and the mitigation required. 

This is a great topic, which many people are passionate or curious about. Social Wi-Fi is changing the way integrators and retail/restautant/hospitality are doing busines, so naturally many questions come up.

We've followed up with a couple of blog posts on the topic:

What is Driving Free Guest Wi-Fi?

http://blog.airtightnetworks.com/free-guest-wi-fi/

and

Social Wi-Fi and Privacy: Keeping Balance in the Force

http://blog.airtightnetworks.com/social-wi-fi-and-privacy/

Comments on the topic are welcome! 
matthewnorwood
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matthewnorwood,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/9/2014 | 5:07:34 PM
Re: No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
Thanks Susan. I lurk far more often than I post, but this article intrigued me, and the comments even more so. :)


I never underestimate a business' ability to charge for every little thing possible. I think it is a misguided viewpoint that plenty of companies(tech especially) have. They think they can nickel and dime the customer. It gets annoying after a while, and eventually the customer ends up going somewhere else that doesn't do that. I would rather pay more up front and not have to worry about making a dozen different small transactions to get what I want.

Quick story regarding bathrooms. My wife was shopping in a local toy store several years back and my son, who was about 3 or 4 at the time, had to use the bathroom. The toy store didn't allow guests to use their bathroom. My wife never set foot in that store again.

It all comes down to knowing your customer and what their needs are. Not to beat a dead horse, but if you are selling toys, there is a good chance there will be lots of kids in your store. The average child does not have the same sized bladder as a grown adult. Every single parent on the planet knows this truth, and yet a small retailer couldn't figure that out.

If you know your customers will use Wi-Fi, provide it. How much does an AP and a local Internet connection cost? Not a lot in the grand scheme of things. it doesn't even have to be Enterprise grade. I've seen lots of cheap consumer AP's work just fine in small retailers. Trying to get me to pay for it means I probably won't be back. If loitering is a concern, there are other ways to deal with that. Fast food chains are the kings of uncomfortable seats. They do that for a reason, and it isn't just so they can wipe it down easier.
Susan Fogarty
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Susan Fogarty,
User Rank: Strategist
5/9/2014 | 4:38:59 PM
Re: No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
Matthewnorwood, it's great to see you here -- thanks for stopping by :)

I think maybe we are in a transitional phase, and there will be businesses (like cafes and hotels) that do build wireless into the price of their goods and services, while others think of it as a luxury. I'm guessing it will depend on the goals of each business and what they are delvering and they expect from their customers, though. If a place doesn't have a bathroom, will it really spring for free wifi?
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